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Were Yahweh and “El” different deities?

Eamonomae

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So, recently I’ve come across a plethora of materials which argue that Israel was originally a polytheistic / helotheistic society, with El and Yahweh being two different deities which eventually morphed into a single God with both characteristics.

And the arguments for this are relatively compelling; for one, we know that the Canaanites worshipped a deity named “El,” a statue of which is here:



And throughout the Masoretic Old Testament, the word that is translated as “God” is “El.” “God Almighty” is “El Shaddai.” The name “Israel” has “El” in its etymological name, as does “Saint Michael.”

El as a Canaanite deity was the supreme leader of the gods, from what we know based on Canaanite sources; but in the Old Testament, it just means “god” or “deity.”

More than this, Yahweh appears to appear on this artwork, with an incription that says “Yahweh and His Asherah.”



Finally, there are certain excerpts out of the Old Testament which seem to suggest that El was distinct from Yahweh.

From Deuteronomy 32:8-9

“When El divided the nations: when he separated the sons of Adam, he appointed the bounds of people according to the number of the children of Israel.
But Yahweh’s portion is his people: Jacob the lot of his inheritance.”

Perhaps El giving Yahweh the nation of Israel to govern as their particular god?

From Exodus 6:2-3

“I am Yahweh. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and I was not known to them by the name Yahweh.”

A justification of the syncretism between Yahweh and El?



What are your thoughts? Is there any evidence against this argument? Or is the idea of Yahweh always being El purely Faith based?


Thanks.


 

Volnutt

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Given how even Christian missionaries almost always seem to use the natives's names for one of their own deities (or related concepts) when translating Scripture, I'm not sure how definitive that is. Reuse of terminology need not imply the same meanings.
 

Iconodule

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This was brought up in this thread too: http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php/topic,57336.0.html

Of course in the Old Testament, time and again, the Israelites are condemned for idolatry. I'm not well-read on the relevant archaeology but I think the evidence is fairly murky and, based on it, it might be impossible to definitely prove whether Israelite monotheism was a revisionist movement or the original faith, later corrupted.
 

Volnutt

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Iconodule said:
This was brought up in this thread too: http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php/topic,57336.0.html

Of course in the Old Testament, time and again, the Israelites are condemned for idolatry. I'm not well-read on the relevant archaeology but I think the evidence is fairly murky and, based on it, it might be impossible to definitely prove whether Israelite monotheism was a revisionist movement or the original faith, later corrupted.
Yeah, especially when a lot of the thinking on this relies on the background assumption that polytheism is "more primitive" than monotheism and will therefore always exist prior to it.
 

WPM

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RaphaCam

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Yahweh is the holy name of El (which is just Hebrew for god), as the Holy Scriptures have well stated, and there is no solid evidence against it in the scriptures or outside them. Deuteronomy 32 is just an overread example of this interchangeability. Exodus 6 is just saying what it is. There is no shred of evidence of ancient non-Israelite worship of Yahweh, while El is widely known among Semites.
 
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And what exactly is the problem with this? Melchizedek worshiped El Elyon (God Most High) in Jerusalem long before Moses, and Abraham recognized that Melchizedek's God was the same who spoke with him. 430 years later, on Sinai, El revealed himself to be Yahweh to Moses. I'm sure many of the Semites knew and worshiped God for a long time (albeit in idolatrous ways). But it wasn't until Abraham and Moses when this same El revealed himself as Yahweh to be the sole God of Israel that Christ might one day be born into the world and redeem humanity.
 

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El is like saying, "God" or Theos. A borrowed word to define what we mean. Like Hades the myth is borrowed from Greek to speak of the actual place of the dead in Greek (to translate Sheol). Also, in Arabic, Orthodox Christians address God as "Allah" even though that is not His Name (as the Muslims believe, but it is a word Arab Christians use in the same sense as EL or Theos or generically, God. It does not mean that Arab Christians worship a god named Allah.
 

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I wouldn't be against seeing the Canaanite worship of El as an expression of the Spermatikos Logos, as St. Justin Martyr described it. The assumption we make when we hear that cultures borrowed gods from each other assumes that every god is imaginary.

I tend to see evidence like this as actually affirming the existence of God, because other cultures saw him, as through a glass dimly. They did not understand everything about Him, but found evidence of Him and worshipped Him, at least in some sort of capacity. So I don't think that finding evidence of another culture worshipping an "El" means that the Israelites introduced it to their own religious thought as an act of syncretism, but instead as evidence that the same God is very real and present in the world.
 

xariskai

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Give Prof. K. A. Kitchen's brief remarks on early monotheism (pp. 330-333) a read here (@ Google Books).
Kitchen is a professor at the University of Liverpool School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies.

I believe he also discusses further related topics in his lively older (still useful though) book Ancient Orient and Old Testament -you can view that whole work for free here:
 
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rakovsky

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In terms of the Biblical view, Yahweh (Jehovah) is the name for El (God). So as the OP quoted from Exodus 6:2-3:
“I am Yahweh. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and I was not known to them by the name Yahweh.”

If you want to go further back in time before Moses (c. 1300 BC), it feels more speculative.

There is a Jewish tradition that Abraham's father Terah or relatives like Laban had idols, but I wasn't able to quickly find it online as being in the Bible.

The Book of Joshua says:
I would have to research more even what the Biblical view was on the legacy passed down from Noah to Abraham, and how it came to be that Terah worshiped "other gods" than Noah and Abraham. Maybe it means that Terah worshiped other gods IN ADDITION TO worshiping God.

One difficulty is that we are talking about 1. a period of a civilization/culture for which there was less written record that remains today, and 2. on a topic which then as today there could be conflicting views within a civilization, and 3. terms like "god" that can have more than one meaning.

So we have records today about Egyptians, Hindus, and Greeks all expressing both Polytheistic and Monotheistic views within their culture. But we don't have such clear views I think in Middle Eastern, Babylonian, Sumerian, or Canaanite or Phoenician writings that have remained from before Moses' time. That is, we have religious ideas about gods from those writings, but I am not familiar with clear monotheistic views.

The term "god" can mean several things.
# 1 is God, the ultimate God, which is God in monotheism. So if people say "God help me", they are praying to this ultimate God, which Hindus have called "God Himself".
#2 is god as in there being many gods, many divine beings, as in the "god Baal" or "god Asherah" etc.
And along with this, there could be
#3 confusion about the rank of such gods as compared to an ultimate God. Angels' names end with "el", and I don't know if that alludes to these angels being called "el"s or "gods", as in Michael referring to "the god Micha". So this could mean that there is God and that there are angels or lesser beings who just have the name "god" but are not "God."
#4 is "God" being in some cases the name for a specific deity, as if we were to refer to the god "God" or the god "El" or the "el" (ie. the "god") named "El".

The Sumerians were the main civilization in the Middle East in the first half of the 3rd millenium BC, and after them came the Babylonians. Abraham in the Bible is depicted as having ancestors who were there, like in the "Tower of Babel" story, referring to Babylon. "Babel" means "House of God" or "House of El". And this name can have more than one interpretation. If you say "House of God", you could normally think of a Church of God, ie the one true ultimate God. The name is not grammatically "House of the God _________", but "House of God." So one interpretation has been that Babel referred to belief in an ultimate God. But it's also been often interpreted to just refer to the House of a god, one reason being that the idea of the one true ultimate God does not come across very clearly AFAIK in Babylonian or Sumerian writings.

Something similar comes up when we talk about the place of the god An in the Sumerian pantheon. "An" means god, and so we find the pictogram for "An" used in front of the Sumerian gods' names when they are called "the god ____" etc. However, there is also a specific god named "An", the father of the gods of the pantheon. One difficulty though in equating An with a henotheistic god though, even though he is at times depicted as supreme, is that he is also depicted as being birthed from a mother goddess, Nammu. However, An is not depicted as having a father. So you could start to guess about whether An is the ultimate God or if Nammu is that God. I have trouble seeing An as a kind of pantocrator or ultimate God figure due to his being born of Nammu.

Like I said, we don't have discussions about the an (god) An (God) being the ultimate one true God, as if there are gods (an) and one "God". It looks like a confusing topic due to these factors. If a Christian missionary went to the Sumerians and asked them in Sumerian, "You believe in gods ('an's), but do you know that there is a 'God'(An)? Do you believe in God (An)?", the question itself has some ambiguity, because they could reply that Yes, they believe in God (An), meaning the god "An."

The missionary could reply that "An" is not God, because God does not have a mother such as Nammu. But even if they were monotheists they could reply that God in their theory did get born out of a mother god, even if that idea of the ultimate God's birth from another god does not make sense. Maybe they would imagine that time is a relative concept and that the birth occurred retroactively. I don't know. Or maybe some Sumerians thought that "An" was born from Nammu but other Sumerians did not believe this yet did not counter the idea in any writings that we found.


Nammu with child

 
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