El Elyon

29 Jan
from Google Images

from Google Images

The Hebrew El Elyon first appears in the Bible in Genesis 14 where Abraham is praised for defeating the kings of the East and rescuing Lot. He is called Abraham of the Most High God (El Elyon). In Jewish theology this event occurs somewhere near the second millennium BC. Chris disagrees with this analysis in his video (HERE) stating that el elyon is the name of one of the Canaanite gods and appears in a clay tablet dating sometime earlier than 1200 BC.

Chris (or perhaps he is summarizing from Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God) extrapolates from the fact that none of the earlier civilizations (Babylonians and Canaanites) mention anything like the stories found from Genesis 2 to 11 that these chapters must be mythical in nature and created to explain the world around them and how they, Abraham’s descendents, would fit into that cultural climate. At about the time of Abraham (a mythical figure according to the Documentary Hypothesis) the name El Elyon is given first mention in the Bible. Chris believes and the Documentary Hypothesis would also have us believe that El Elyon was edited into the Genesis account from earlier Canaanite and Babylonian texts.

The problem with this idea is that the term most high is seldom used outside the Bible in ancient sources. According to what is determined HERE, the “most controversial (mention) is in the earliest of three Aramaic treaty inscriptions found at Al Safirah 16 miles south of Aleppo. The “Sfire I inscription, which dated to about 750 BC, lists the major patron deities of each side, all of them in pairs coupled by ‘and’, in each case a male god and the god’s spouse when the names are known. Then, after a gap comes ’l wʿlyn.”

What does this mean? According to this same website, it can mean only one of three things:

  1. “This possibly means ‘’Ēl and ʿElyōn’, seemingly also two separate gods, followed by further pairs of deities.
  2. “It is possible also that these indicate two aspects of the same god.
  3. “Or it might be a single divine name. The Ugaritic texts contain divine names like Kothar-wa-Khasis ‘Skilful-and-Clever’, Mot-wa-Shar ‘Death-and-Prince’ (or possibly ‘Death-and-Destruction’), Nikkal-and-Ib which is in origin the name of the Sumerian goddess named Ningal combined with an element of unknown meaning. Therefore Ēl-wa-ʿElyōn might be a single name ‘God-and-Highest’ identical in meaning with Biblical Ēl ʿElyōn even though this would be unique.”

We can conclude from this that Chris has no real source for dating El Elyon in non-Biblical texts before 750 BC. Furthermore, by his own admission his sources J & E wrote one to two centuries earlier than the Sfire I Treaty. This being so, we have no compelling reason to believe El Elyon wasn’t worshiped by the Jews much earlier than the 10th century BC, because, if the Jews didn’t copy the names of the gods of the nations around them, there is no reason not to believe the texts shouldn’t be read as written.

Chris says that Abraham mirrored others who worshiped El Elyon in speaking and walking with him, yet no documentation of this is offered. Moreover, he says that Genesis 28:11-19 shows Jacob climbing a ladder to speak with El Elyon. Nevertheless, once we examine the text for ourselves, we find that Jacob dreamed a dream of ‘others’ climbing and descending’ the ladder, but not himself. In the text it is Yehovah who stands at the top and speaks with Jacob (still sleeping on the earth). When Jacob awoke he claimed that God was “in this place” i.e. the place where Jacob slept, and he named it Beth-el, meaning the House of God. Therefore, whatever literal meaning a “ladder” has to us, Jacob believed God was “in” the very place where he slept. This idea seems to be quite different from what we know of how the ancients viewed God and heaven.


Posted by on January 29, 2015 in atheism, naturalism


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7 responses to “El Elyon

  1. Return of Benjamin

    January 29, 2015 at 11:30

    It’s always a pleasure to read your posts. I’ve been busy with having a couple of little ones in the house, but I’m getting back on-track with the blogging now.

    A free resource you might like to pick up since you’re going into this area is the Dictionary of Deities and Demons of the Bible. You can find the older edition (from the 1990s) as a free pdf. It’s an invaluable resource for doing these kinds of comparative studies.


    • Eddie

      January 29, 2015 at 17:34

      Rabbi Mike, thanks for the resource. I am reading the scholars thoughts on ‘Elyon’ now. I have to ask though, is it just me or is there an antisemitic bias in the scholars’ interpretations. It seems the Jews have no history before the Babylonian captivity, and they have copied everyone from the Greeks to the Canaanites. Every abbreviated “l” must be elyon and not Baal; even the corrupt text of Philo of Byblos is somehow redeemed to point to an extra-biblical elyon. Nevertheless, it is fun to see how the scholars argue for this point and that with, what seems to me, so little evidence. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    • Return of Benjamin

      February 19, 2015 at 09:25

      “I have to ask though, is it just me or is there an antisemitic bias in the scholars’ interpretations.”

      It’s not just you, though I’d say it’s an anti-Biblical bias rather than an anti-Semitic one. For a long time, Biblical minimalism (the idea that you can’t trust what the Bible says about historical events unless you have a secondary source) has been dominant in academia. As you get into their sources, you learn to filter the bias and even to smirk at it: “Well, we know that verse x must have been composed after the Babylonian captivity because we can find no other instances of this sort of construction . . . except for in verses a, b, and c, which are all obvious later additions as well.”

      At this point, though, the fact that the Biblical symbolism, allusions, and so forth fit so well with what we’ve found in the Ugaritic texts that even the minimalists admit that the Jews were indeed living in the Land and interacting with the Canaanites sometime before 1200 BCE. So I enjoy the additional insights that I get from the _facts_ that the scholars collect while feeling free to ignore the bias in their interpretations.

      Sorry for the delay in responding. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.


  2. Return of Benjamin

    January 29, 2015 at 08:47

    Elyon was a title which was given to the highest gods of the Canaanites. In Ugaritic liturature, it appears as an appelation for Baal rather than El for the most part.

    I don’t see why the idea that El is the old Canaanite name for the Biblical God is a problem, to be honest. All cultures in that area (and all of the ones I know of outside of the Middle-east) had a concept of an uncreated creator/father God: El to the Canaanites, Atum to the Egyptians, Anu to the Mesopotamians and Hittites, etc. The intriguing thing to me is that while they always acknowledged this High God, and even built temples to Him to avoid offending, they always gave their devotion to one of the lesser gods that He had created: Baal, Osirus, Marduke, Enki, Teshub, etc.

    That actually fits perfectly with the Biblical model that there is one Eternal Creator, but that He created other spiritual beings (e.g., angels), some of which fell and began receiving the worship of pagan Man.

    I’m confused by the idea that there are no parallels to Genesis 1-11 in pagan mythology, however. Pretty much everything in the first eleven chapters of the Bible is a response to some pagan belief, sometimes debunking, and sometimes agreeing that it happened (like the Flood) and giving the true story.


    • Eddie

      January 29, 2015 at 10:07

      Rabbi Mike, greetings, and thanks for stopping by to comment.

      I have a question about your response. You claim that El Elyon is a title for the highest god of the Canaanite myths, but according to what I’ve found, if this is so, it would be quite unique in their tradition. Rather it is more likely referring to a god and his mate or two aspects describing one of their gods. My contention is that claiming the Ugaritic text should say “God Most High” like the Hebrew tradition is lame, since other similar forms refer to a god and his mate or two aspects describing a specific god in their mythology. How would you respond?

      • Return of Benjamin

        January 29, 2015 at 11:15

        I think the confusion comes out of the conjunction “wa” in the Ugaritic texts, so that instead of El Elyon, they give El-wa-Elyon (El and Most High). However, there are other examples of compound names in Canaanite literature that use the “wa” conjunction, like Kothar-wa-Khasis “Skilful-and-Clever,” the divine smith, or Mot-wa-Shar “Death-and-Prince.” Since that seems to be a common construction for Canaanite divine names, I think that trying to force a god/goddess pair out of El-wa-Elyon, especially in light of the Biblical data that drops the conjunction, is just that: forced.

        Especially since we know who El’s consort is in Ugaritic myth: Rabat Athirat Yammi, the “Lady who Treads on the Sea,” who is called Asherah in the Hebrew Bible. (I suspect that this is basically a Canaanite misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, who brooded over the primordial sea at creation.) I’ve never heard that Athirat was called Elyon in the Canaanite texts.


        • Eddie

          January 29, 2015 at 11:24

          Thanks! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you.


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