god El was the namesake of Israel. Although discussion continues, yisra'el
means something like "El domnates." As long as Israel existed,
El was its high god. Israel and El were one in name.
was not always called Israel. It is not a name descended from tradition.
It was deliberately created and applied to a pre-existing people. They
were formerly called Jacob (rarely also Jeshurun). Jacob is both the
name of a patriarch and a collective term for the Arameans who migrated
to northern Palestine in the latter half of the second millenium.
Through continued migrations and propagation, Jacob became an important
presence throughout the region. They brought with them an Aramean
version of El veneration.
El is descended from Mesopotamian religion. He was the high god of a
pantheon like the Sumerian god An and the Babylonian god Anu. He was
remote and his main function may be described as an executive ruler who
employed his sons to execute his decrees. The essential concern of this
Aramean high god was social justice. Of subordinate rank but of prime
importance was Hadad, who was the focus of worship as he was an
intermediary god between the Arameans and El.
Arameans left Syria, they left Hadad behind. In Palestine, they
encountered El and Baal who were both the same and different from the
gods they worshipped. We cannot tell to what extent they equated
Canaanite religion with their own. We have no indication that any other
god was of importantance to them. El is the focus of their earliest
traditions. It was El himself who appeared to Jacob at Penuel and El is
the god named at four known cult sites--Bethel, Penuel, El Berith and f
forthe altar named "El is the god of Israel. El behaves as if he
has taken on the role of the abandoned Hadad. When Jacob took its new
name, this was the El it described and this was the El it worshipped
until it was destroyed by the Assyrians.
indigenous version of El religion is found at pre-Davidic Jerusalem. The
Jebusites worshipped primarily El and Sedek. Their legendary priest and
king was Melchizedek ("My King is Sedek"). The leader of the
Canaanite coalition against Joshua was Adoni-zedek ("My Lord is
Sedek"). Aram had El and Hadad, Canaan had El and Baal and the
Jebusites had El and Sedeq. Jacob had El doing double duty.
Yahwistic Hebrews successfully dislodged those in power in Canaan, the
sons of Jacob and the indigenous peoples created a new national identity
they chose to call Israel. Yahweh filled the vacancy left by Hadad and
El returned to his role as chief executor. In Jerusalem, Zedek
disappeared and Yahweh replaced him. Yahweh became the son of El Elyon.
He was assigned by El to rule over Jacob, El still needing a replacement
for Hadad. El Elyon's pantheon is presented in Deut 32:8-9.
theory, David was to regard Yahweh as El's subordinate. In practice,
this was not possible. David was a Judahite and as such had only
worshipped Yahweh. El was foreign to both him and his people. Yet, it
was understood that the North and the South were to regard themselves as
one people--Israelites. When the North seceded from the House of David,
Jeroboam redefined Israel to mean Jacob or the ten northern tribes.
Judahites were nominal Israelites only. Jacob alone was truly Israel in
the sense that El was their god from of old.
did all he could to banish Yahweh from his people and his people from
Yahweh. A most remarkable Psalm reveals how Jeroboam's staff banished
Yahweh from El's pantheon. In Psalm 82, El issue a decree that his sons
have been condemned to mortality for failing to enact social justice.
Those sentenced included Chemosh, Dagon, Milcom, Baal and especially
Yahweh. It is no coincidence that Israel withdrew from Judah over issues
of social justice--like king, like god.
Judah, there were polytheists like Solomon and traditional Yahwists like
Saul and David. When El left with Jeroboam, only El's name remained.
Judah now had a tradition of thinking of themselves as Israelites and
continued to use the name even thoug the North no longer identified
themselves with them.
Jeroboam's program failed because Yahwism had long penetrated the North.
Ardent Yahwist like Deborah and Elijah belonged to a northern stream of
traditional Yahwism. The people demanded that they have their
intermediate god. In the ninth century, Jezebel introduced Tyrian Baal
and made him the central god of the kingdom. Jezebel cared nothing for
religion. Jehu regarded her as a whore who used her religion to increase
her political power. The common Israelite was pulled between authentic
Yahwism and following the religious policies of their queen. A fictional
tale of the contest on Mount Carmel represents the religious clash
between Yahwism and Baalism.
Yahwists' solution was realized by Elisha who manipulated Jehu into
destroying the house of Ahab. Jehu hated Jezebel and when fate put him
in direct command of the armies, he took the opportunity to lure Jehoram
away from the safety of the palace in order to assassinate him. He then
entered Jezreel to find Jezebel waiting to seduce him. He had no trouble
convincing some eunuchs to toss her from her balcony. The fall paralyzed
Jezebel, allowing Jehu to kill her by directing his chariot horse to
trample her to death. Only body parts remained. Jehu also had the elders
of Samaria execute all the princes and he set a trap for the priests of
Baal in the temple. After luring them in, he had his men descend upon
them and slaughter every last one.
this narrative and Hos 1:5 regard Jehu as nothing but a political
opportunist not unlike Jezebel herself. Neither cared anything about
religion. Yet Yahwism had succeeded in removing enforced Tyrian Baalism.
We must conclude that it remained a rival but without a state
protagonist. Yahwism's influence most likely increased but could not
displace all competition in the north.
In that we have a highly biased portrayal of Israel by the ardent
Judahite known as the Deuteronomistic Historian, we know virtually
nothing about the religious climate of the Israel following the
extermination of the Omrides. We know that northern Yahwism was a
minority presence and that the majority continued to worship their
namesake until they were no more, a fact that is vindicated by the
discovery of two prayers to the god El at the pilgrimage waystation at
Kuntillet Ajrud. Commonly dated to the middle of the 8th century, these
prayers clearly show that El remained the god of Israel that was
destroyed in the last half of the same century (721 BCE). Fortuitously,
we have two fixed points that enclose the practice of El worship in
northern Palestine with the Merneptah stele defining the upper limit (c.
1220) and Kuntillet Ajrud fixing the lower (c. 750). Archaelogical finds
confirm what logic dictates--for as long as Israel existed, El remained
the high god of his namesake people.