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December 13: Names of God (‘Adon)

Today I will be discussing two names, or titles, applied to God in the Ancient Near East and in Israel. They are /wda* (°¹dôn) and ly^B^ (ba±al), and both have the basic meaning “lord”, being regularly translated in Greek by the word ku/rio$. Because of the frequent use of the Greek ku/rio$ as a name or designation of God (in the New Testament, etc), it is worth considering the meaning and usage of these terms in the Old Testament.

°A~dôn

The noun °¹dôn (/oda*) occurs hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Its exact etymology is somewhat uncertain, but it is clear that strength and the exercise of control are fundamental to the meaning. As such, it is at least partially synonymous with the word °¢l (la@, cf. the prior article), based on its presumed meaning (“mighty, great”). It is a common Semitic word, with cognates in Ugaritic and Akkadian (adannu). Typically, °¹dôn is translated “lord, master”, and, occasionally, “ruler”. Sometimes the idea of ownership is in view, though it may be said that the connotation of authority and control is more common. As with the word ba±al (cf. below), it is often used in the ordinary social context of the master of a household, which, in a patriarchal/patrilineal society, meant the leading male figure—father, husband, and/or eldest son. Thus °¹dôn could be used specifically of the husband in a marriage or family.

Within a religious setting, it is natural that the word would be applied as a title or epithet of God. As noted above, °¹dôn is, to some extent, synonymous with the words °¢l and °§lœhîm, corresponding generally to “God” in English. As a title, it also came to be connected specifically with the name Yahweh, as we see in Exod 34:23; Josh 3:13; Psalm 8:2, etc. The suffixed form, e.g. °¦dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord”, was used especially by Israelites in addressing God (Gen 15:2, 8; 18:3, et al), and so was fitting as a reverential substitution in lieu of uttering the name Yahweh (on this, cf. the previous article). Eventually, this substitution was widespread enough that Jewish translators of the Old Testament (into Greek) often rendered Yahweh as ku/rio$ (“Lord”) virtually throughout. A similar convention is adopted in many English versions, where the name Yahweh is translated “LORD” (in caps), which, of course, creates difficulties with the title °A_dôn (also translated “Lord”) when it is appears together with Yahweh.

Ba±al

Many Christians have a distorted understanding of the word ba±al (lu^B^), associating it exclusively with the worship of the pagan (Canaanite) deity “Baal”. However, it is actually a common Semitic word, with a range of meaning quite similar to °¹dôn (cf. above). It is used more than 160 times in the Old Testament, along with a number of other occurrences in personal and place names. Compared with °¹dôn, perhaps the emphasis is on ownership more so than authority/control; and ba±al is often translated as “master”. In its ordinary Hebrew usage, in a social context, it typically refers to the husband in a marriage and family, just as in English it was once common to use the expression “lord/master of the house”.

As was also the case with the word °¹dôn, ba±al could be applied to God, as “Lord” or “Master”. Such a title could be applied to any particular deity, and there is some evidence to indicate that, at earlier periods in Israelite history, it may have been used of El/Yahweh. When we encounter personal names with the element ba±al, at a time when Yahweh/El was predominantly (or exclusively) worshiped, we must consider seriously the possibility that Yahweh is the “Lord/Master” (Ba±al) being referenced (on this, cf. below). However, eventually it was deemed inappropriate to use the title for Yahweh, since it had come to be associated so closely with the Canaanite deity called by that name.

The Canaanite “Baal” was more properly known by the name Haddu (or Hadad), viewed primarily as the personification of the storm—the power behind the (life-giving and restoring) waters in the rain and floods. With the development of agriculture in Syria-Palestine, the figure of Baal Haddu became increasingly prominent in the religious culture of the farming societies who were dependent on the rains and flooding of the rivers. The texts from Ugarit (14th-13th centuries B.C.), especially the so-called Baal Epic (CAT 1.1-1.6), depict a powerful young hero standing at the center of the natural order, with the seasonal cycle and the processes of fertility and growth, death and rebirth. In certain respects, this deity has supplanted the old Creator god °E~l in importance—a situation which no doubt helps to explain the conflict between Baal/Haddu and Yahweh/El in Israelite religious history. As the early Israelites began to move into Palestine, especially in the conquest/settlement of the territories further north, they would have increasingly come into contact with established Canaanite religious beliefs and practices associated with Baal/Haddu. This conflict is expressed in the old tradition(s) recorded in Num 25 and in the early chapters of Judges—cf. the warning in Judg 2:1-5, followed by vv. 11-15, the formulae punctuating the various accounts (3:7, 12, etc), and, especially, in the Gideon narrative (6:11-35, see also 8:33-35).

The setting of the Gideon narrative, in particular, raises intriguing questions as to the relationship between Baal (or the name Ba±al) and Yahweh in Israel. Viewed through the lens of later tradition, there is an unequivocal hostility and incompatibility between the two; however, some of the early evidence, taken on its own merits, is rather more ambiguous, as indicated above. There are two possibilities which should be considered:

  • Instances were the title Ba±al (“Lord, Master”) is applied to Yahweh/El, without necessarily any direct connection with the Canaanite deity
  • Examples of syncretism, whereby Baal/Haddu and Yahweh/El were identified with each other, at some level, or religious beliefs/practices associated with each deity were combined

The two religious phenomena may also be related, with use of the title Ba±al having been influenced by syncretistic tendencies. The Gideon narrative itself suggests some degree of religious syncretism. According to the narrative (6:25-27), Gideon’s father had set up an “altar of Baal” and an “Asherah”, typically understood as Canaanite practices adopted by Israel, and here clearly opposed by God. Yet Gideon himself seems completely familiar with, and accepting of, the worship of Yahweh/El (vv. 11-18ff), despite his apparent family situation (cf. also 8:33-35), and the fact that his original name contains the element Ba±alYeruba±al, meaning something like “The Lord/Master [Ba±al] will contend”. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that, in the Semitic/Canaanite world, the title Ba±al was, at times, applied to the chief Creator God °E~l, such as in the titles “Lord of (the) Heavens” [i.e. Ba±l Šamêm] and “Lord of (the) Amanus(? mountain[s])” [Ba±l „amœn] (cf. Cross, pp. 7-8, 24-28). A number of Israelite personal names contain the (theophoric) element Ba±al, including the children of apparently ardent worshipers of Yahweh such as Saul, David and Jonathan (1 Chron 8:33-34; 14:7). It is possible that this may reflect Canaanite influence in Benjamin, etc (cf. Judg 1:21), but there is nothing in the traditions recorded in 1-2 Samuel to suggest that either Saul or Jonathan were particularly inclined toward ‘Baal worship’. Such names were disconcerting enough to Scriptural authors of the (later) Kingdom period that they were intentionally altered (cf. 2 Sam 4:4; 9:4ff, etc). The context of Hosea 2:16 [Hebrew v. 18] suggests that some Israelites of the time may have honestly been referring to Yahweh/El as Ba±al—”My Lord/Master [Ba±®lî]”, similar to “My Lord [°A_dœn¹y]” (cf. above).

Following the reign of Solomon, and into the period of the Divided Kingdom, Canaanite religion gained considerable influence over both the rulers (of Israel and Judah) and the culture as a whole. There came to be an increasingly sharp division between (a) strict Yahwists and (b) those willing to adopt Canaanite beliefs and practices, the latter no doubt reflecting a syncretic blending of Baal and Yahweh traditions, respectively. The Prophets of the Kingdom period (cf. the Hosea passage cited above) denounced, in no uncertain terms, any kind of religious expression associated with foreign deities, and, especially, any worship of “Baal” or “the Baals”—the plural often referring to a wide range of practices or to polytheistic (Canaanite) religion in general. Perhaps the most famous tradition is found in the Elijah narrative of 1 Kings 18, involving the priests of Baal, in which Canaanite religion is lampooned and ridiculed severely. In order to appreciate the strength of the syncretistic tendencies condemned repeatedly by the Prophets, one must realize the features and characteristics which Yahweh shared with Baal/Haddu:

By the time of the New Testament, the conflict between Baal and Yahweh had long since disappeared, with Canaanite Ba±al (Haddu) being preserved in Israelite/Jewish tradition as a ruler of the “demons” (daimons). According to the strict monotheism shared by Jews and early Christians of the period, all other ‘deities’ in the pagan world were either viewed as non-existent or relegated to the status of lesser, evil spirits. As Baal had been the most famous such deity in the Old Testament and Israelite history, it was natural that he take on the role of leader of these spirits—”Prince Ba±al” (Ba±al Z§»ûl, Greek Beelzebou/l) becomes “Prince of the demons” (Mark 3:22 par; Matt 10:25).

The words in the New Testament

As noted above, the word °¹dôn is typically translated in Greek as ku/rio$, both words meaning essentially “lord”. In the New Testament, as in other Jewish writings of the time, ku/rio$ also is used to translated the name Yahweh (hwhy), by way of the common substitution °A_dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord” (cf. above). The word ku/rio$ occurs more than 700 times in the New Testament, including 33 times in the Infancy narratives—several of these references will be discussed in the notes in this series.

The noun ba±al is also rendered in Greek by ku/rio$, while the word despo/th$ specifically emphasizes the aspect of ownership (as of a slave) and of possessing authority, and may similarly be translated “lord” or “master”. On occasion, despo/th$ can be used for the name Yahweh, in the vocative of personal address (“O [my] Lord/Master”). The noun appears only 10 times in the New Testament, but in a number of these instances it is used of God (and/or Christ). It occurs in Lukan Infancy narrative at Lk 2:29, a verse which I have discussed in an earlier note, and will address again in this series.

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

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