was successfully added to your cart.

December 10: Names of God (‘El)

The initial articles of this series (cf. the Introduction) will focus on the names of God—the principal names and titles used of God in the Old Testament. In studying the religions of the Ancient World, from our modern (Western) standpoint with its generalized monotheism, the polytheism common to the vast majority of ancient and traditional cultures can seem most confusing. A multitude of names are used, and it is often difficult to know just what to make of them, especially when looking at the evidence of religion spanning many centuries. Names are apt to change their meaning and point of reference over time. Even with regard to the monotheism of ancient Israel, there is some uncertainty and ambiguity over the precise meaning of particular names as they have been preserved in the text of the Old Testament. By way of introduction, I would emphasize the following points to keep in mind, in terms of how names can be understood in an ancient religious context:

  • Names may refer to distinct deities (or concepts of God)
  • Multiple names may refer to the same deity (or concept)
  • Names may be titles or epithets used of a particular deity (who otherwise has a specific name)
  • Names may be evidence of syncretism—deities (and/or their names) regarded as synonymous or joined together in combination

The first name I will be looking at is Hebrew la@ (°E~l).

The Names of God: °E~l

The word la@ (°¢l) in Hebrew generally corresponds to “God” in English. It is an ancient Semitic word which was well-established and in wide use by at least the early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.), attested in every part of the Semitic-speaking world—in Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, south into Arabia and N. Africa, as well as in the Phoenician (Punic) colonies much further afield. It doubtless belongs to the earliest Proto-Semitic vocabulary, and has a basic meaning and usage similar to the early terms dingir () in Sumer and netjer (n¾r, ) in Egypt. The precise etymology remains uncertain, but the fundamental meaning of la@ would seem to be “mighty” or possibly “great, exalted”. It is often thought to be derived from the root lwa (°awl), but I suspect it stems from a primitive biconsonantal root la. As applied to the power (or powers, i.e. deities) which were thought to govern the universe, the term would literally mean “mighty (one)”, with plural <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) as “mighty (one)s”—that is to say, “God” or “gods”. The main difference between °¢l and the corresponding terms from Sumer and Egypt is that °¢l was commonly used as the name of the chief (Creator) Deity of the Semitic-speaking peoples. The range of usage does generally match that of “God” in English:

  • of Deity generally—”God”
  • to refer to any particular deity (or deities)—”god(s)”
  • as a name when addressing or referring to the Creator Deity—as “God”

There is reasonably well documented evidence for the chief Creator God being named °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) for both the Amorites in Mesopotamia and Canaanites in Syria-Palestine. As pronounced (vocalized) at the time (c. 2000-1400 B.C.) it would have been °Il(u). The most extensive information comes from the religious texts and myths uncovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria. For the most part, °E~l is depicted as an elderly, but vigorous, chieftain who rules and judges from his mountain (also envisioned as a domed tent)—a cosmic mountain filling the space between heaven and earth, but which could be represented (symbolically) in any important local mountain. This portrait relates especially to nomadic tent-dwellers, pastoral (herding) societies, in which °E~l was frequently referred to by the descriptive title “Bull”.

The principal role of °E~l was as Father—both of gods and human beings—or, more concretely, as Creator. This is seen in the famous episode in Genesis 14, in which Abraham encounters Melchi-Zedek, the (Canaanite) priest-king of Salem. There °E~l (using the compound name °E~l ±Elyôn, cf. below) is referred to with the formula-title “creator [hn@q)] of heaven and earth” (v. 19). The text clearly implies that Abraham and Melchi-Zedek are symathetic figures who share the same basic religious beliefs. Indeed, despite the notice in Gen 4:26, it is all but certain that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel—along with the early Israelites themselves—worshiped God by the name °E~l (i.e. “Mighty [One]”). This is amply confirmed by the traditions recorded in Genesis, most notably that in chapter 33 of the altar consecrated to “°E~l the God of Israel [°E~l °§lœhê Yi´ra¢l]” (v. 20). Moreover, personal and place names incorporating °E~l are relatively common in the early period, whereas corresponding names with Yah(weh) become prevalent only in the later Kingdom period. Most notably, of course, the name Israel itself (Yi´ra°el) includes °E~l, though the precise etymology remains uncertain—perhaps “°E~l is/has dominion” (but cp. the interpretation in Gen 32:28). Eventually, Yahweh came to be identified with °E~l, with the names being regarded as referring to the same (Creator) God. On the relationship between these two names, cf. the upcoming article on “Yahweh”.

There are three important compound °E~l-names which should be noted—°E~l ±Ôlam, °E~l ±Elyôn, and °E~l Šadday. It is significant that all three names—±Ôlam (“Ancient [One]”), ±Elyôn (“High[est One]”), and Šadday (“[He] of the Mountain”, “Mountain[ous One]”)—are attested in the Semitic (Canaanite) world as distinct deities, or as separate divine names. Thus there is some ambiguity as to how such compound names should be understood. There are three possible ways to read them (using the name with ±Ôlam [“Ancient”] as an example):

  • “The God (named) ‘Ancient [One]'”—that is, a deity with the name ±Ôlam. Such an interpretation would be rather unlikely within the context of Israelite monotheism.
  • °E~l the Ancient [One]”—i.e., as an epithet of °E~l
  • As a dual-name, which joins together two deities (or concepts of deity) into a single figure—°E~l±Ôlam. In a monotheistic context, this would have to be understood something like “The Mighty One (who is also) the Ancient One”

The second option is to be preferred; that is, such compound names, as found in Israelite religious tradition, involve titles or epithets of the (one) Creator God named °E~l. For more on this subject, cf. Cross, pp. 46-60.

By the time of the New Testament, the specific use of the name °E~l had all but disappeared, in Hebrew and Aramaic usage, having been long since been replaced by Yahweh and its associated titles (e.g. °Adôn[ay], “Lord”). However, through the quotation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and their underlying traditions), vestiges of the name are preserved. Within the Infancy narratives in the Gospels, there are at least three names which preserve the element °E~l:

  • Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. The Greek )Elisa/bet (Elisábet) is a transliteration of the Hebrew ub^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), “God [°E~l] is (my) oath [i.e. the one to swear by]”, or perhaps something like “God [°E~l] is (the one who) satisfies”. She will be discussed, together with Zechariah, in the note on Luke 1:5-6.
  • Gabriel, the heavenly Messenger (Angel) who appears to Zechariah and Mary in the Lukan narrative. Again, the Greek Gabrih/l (Gabri¢¡l) is a transliteration of the Hebrew—la@yr!b=G~ (Ga»rî°¢l), usually understood as “Strong/young (man) of God [°E~l]”, but perhaps better rendered “(My) God [°E~l] (is) Strong [i.e. a warrior]”. He will be discussed in the note on Luke 1:18-19ff.
  • Immanuel (Grk )Emmanouh/l), the name preserved within the quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. The translation given in the Gospel more or less accurately reflects the meaning of the Hebrew la@uWnM*u! (±Imm¹nû°¢l), “God [°E~l] (is) with us”. Matt 1:23 will be discussed in the notes.

References marked “Cross” above (and throughout these notes) are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

Leave a Reply