to a failure to distinguish between myth and history, biblical
interpreters have implicitly accepted the view that Elism was an old
form of Yahwism because the Elohist (Ex 3:13-15) and the Priestly Writer
(Ex 6:2-3) declared it so. Actually, but a moment’s reflection will
show that El and Yahweh are not the same god. It is easily demonstrated
that Yahwism and Elism were distinct religions, differing in more ways
than they were alike.
The earliest Yahwistic traditions reveal that Yahweh was a bedouin war
god from the deserts of Edom and of the surrounding regions. His
essentially warlike characteristics are demonstated by his name, by
cultic celebrations of his mighty deeds, and by his ark.
With regard to the Tetragrammaton,I think that the the strongest
interpretation of the name regards "Yahweh" as an abbreviation
of his official, longer name, "Yahweh Sabaoth." It means,
"he musters armies." Yahweh's name identifies this god as
primarily the military commander of his people.
In Ex 15:3, Yahweh’s name itself is defined in terms of war:
is a warrior
Yahweh is his NAME
cultic celebration of Yahweh from the Song of Deborah also portrays him
as a warrior:
when you set out from Seir
As you trod the land of Edom,
Earth shook, the heavens quaked,
The clouds dissolved into water.
The mountains melted before Yahweh,
Yahweh, the god of Israel.This
dramatic description portrays Yahweh as a warrior on the move, whose
might is so great that earth shakes at his step, the heavens quake, and
the mountains melt before his march.
And as the ark
set out Moses would say,
Yahweh’s ark also was strongly associated with warfare. It was thought
that Yahweh was seated upon this moveable platform and that from here he
led his troops to and from battle as he did against Jericho. So we find
the formulaic saying in Num 10:35-36:
"Arise, O Yahweh, may your enemies be scattered
and those who hate you to run
for their lives before you!"
And as it came to rest, he would say,
"Return, O Yahweh
to the thronging armies of Israel."
also we see military might glorified. Yahweh returns from his victories
to the throngs of armies whom he commands.
Different from the savage Yahwism of the desert, a less bellicose form
of Yahwism developed that likely entered Judah as migrant Hebrews moved
in from the deserts to settle in southern Palestine. As we see reflected
in the Abraham traditions, Yahweh is portrayed as a clan god who bears a
special relationship to a clan cheiftain such as Abram. Yahweh is
primarily portrayed as a god who promises to provide his devotees with a
land of their own upon which they may live and prosper. This transported
form of Yahwism may aptly be called "Hebrew Yahwism" since the
word, "Hebrew" is derived from a root that means, "to
cross over." The Hebrews were those Yahwists who, following the
pioneer Abram, migrated from the deserts regions surruounding Judah and
"crossed over" to dwell there. Thus, we must distinguish
Abramic Yahwism from Desert or Arabic Yahwism. The former group did not
obtain their land through warfare. Rather, its members settled in vacant
domains adjacent to the indigenous population and would from time to
time live among them. Abraham's cultic duties involved little more than
the construction of altars for sacrifice to Yahweh. But even with this
more pacifistic form of Yahwism, we yet find that Abram the Hebrew
remained the cheiftain of his clan who could muster support from other
Hebrew clans as he did when he gathered 318 men to rescue Lot. As for
the character of this migration, it seems most realistic to envision
waves of immigrants that were comprised of several clans, each with
their own cheiftain who together form a support network that Abram and
others like him could draw upon in time of need.
It is highly likely
that Yahwism had its home in Edom/Seir/Paran. Two poems describe Yahweh
as coming from this region. We have already cited the text from the Song
of Deborah. The other is found in the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33:2):
down from Sinai.
For them, behind Seir, it [i.e. the morning star] arose on the horizon,
Over Mount Paran it shone forth.
For them it came for the mustering at Kadesh,
From its zenith as far down as the foothills.
mention of Sinai is problematic since it is somewhat geographically
remote from Edom. Sinai's location can be accounted for by the view that
it had served as a pilgrimage shrine for Yahweh that drew Yahwists from
throughout the desert regions (cp. Elijah's pilgrimage). But no doubt
the center of Yahwism was defined by Yahweh's people who according to
the above text were located in and around Edom and Kadesh. Thus, it safe
to conclude that these Yahwists were centered in Edom. Perhaps Yahwism
spread out from there across the desert regions of the Transjordan and
the Sinai Peninsula. Oldest Yahwism was an ancient Arabic religion.
The antiquity of Yahwism is most evident in the fact that we have we
have texts that presuppose the primary importance of nomadism, music,
and metalllurgy. The following information supplied by a Kenite
genealogy appears to be ancient:
he was the ancestor of the tent dwellers and the owners of livestock.
His brother’s name was Jubal: he was the ancestor of all who play the
lyre and flute. Tubal-cain: he was the ancestor of all metalworkers, in
bronze or iron.
have what appears to be a piece of folklore that was part of the
religious heritage of the Arabic Yahwists. The tradition assigns three
cultural developments to the three sons of Lamech. The three vocations
named are nomadism, musicianship and metallurgy. Because this people
possessed such lore, we may deduce that they had long existed as the
people of Yahweh.
We may also bring
the god El into sharper definition. The worship of El seems to go back
to the Aramean roots of those who, like Jacob first, were forced to find
a new land in order to survive. Jacob was remembered in cultic tradition
as a "perishing Aramean." That likely means that the tribe
Jacob had lost its land. As it searched for new land, the tribe was
perishing, meaning, its members were dying of starvation. It appears
that these traditions are indeed historical. The Aramean roots of the
northerners are not only shown by the credo of Deut 26:5 but also by the
patriachal traditions of Isaac and Jacob, both of whom had to return
"home" there to get wives. Old Israel remembered its roots as
Jacob and his group settled in and spread out from the Hills of Ephraim,
a very fertile area. They brought with them an Aramean version of El
worship adapted to a new environment. A comparison with Canaanite
mythology leads to the conclusion that the Aramaic version had both
common and dissimilar elements between them. Common to both religions
was the belief that El was the high god of a pantheon. The clearest
picture of the variations of the Israelite Elism come from a
consideration of Deut 32:7-9 and related texts. What we find is a
religion in which El presides over his sons, assigning each of them a
people to govern. What is surprising is that here we also find Yahweh
portrayed as one of El Elyon’s divine sons. Even if Yahweh were
missing from the text, it would still be important in that it reveals an
important aspect regarding El’s pantheon. The metaphor is one of a
royal executive family ruling over its domain that is divided among each
of the sons, each given their specific assignment. This type of
bureaucratic pantheon bears the strongest resemblence to Mesopotamian
mythology. From this comparitive perspective, Aramean Elism seems to be
a sister version of Canaanite mythology, both descended from a
Psalm 82 is remarkable in that it has El "firing" all his sons
and condemning them to mortality. Although this Psalm shares the same
view of El and his sons, this tradition descends from northern tradition
and in this respect differs from the Jerusalem tradition found in Deut
32:8-9. In Psalm 82, Yahweh is not explicitly mentioned even though Deut
32:8-9 would place him among the "sons of Elyon" (v. 6).
One wonders what inspired such a Psalm that has El condemning his sons
to death through whom he had formerly maintained his rule. The only
event that could have triggered such a radical idea seems to be the
establishment of the kingship of Jeroboam I. Apparently, among his
reforms, intended to distance Israel from Judah and to promote national
identity, Jeroboam I and his court thought it best to announce El's
decision that the gods of the other nations had been condemned to death
and that El was now forced to rule alone. This dramatic cultic scene
appears to hold political implications. The arrangement that the nations
that were under El's rule through rule throug his sons was no longer in
effect. El, without any international intermediaries, now ruled alone
over all from Israel. While the decree is aimed at all the gods of the
nations, one realizes that the Psalm made its strongest point against
Judah at a time when Jeroboam was establishing an independent kingdom.
Therefore, it appears that we have two traditions that describe El's
pantheon in similar terms but which are to be distinguished by their
provenance, one coming David's Jerusalem cult and the other from
Jeroboam's newly renovated cult.
Psalm 29 is remarkable in that while Yahweh appears here also as one of
the sons of El, this psalm portrays a highly dynamic god who does not
fit the profile of the subordinate god who ruled over a portion of his
father's domain. Psalm 29 is much closer to Canaanite thought than to
Deut 32:8-9 and Psalm 82. It appears that we have some variation with
regard to the characteristics of El’s pantheon--one which shares many
of the dynamic qualities of Canaanite myth (Psalm 29), while another
that may be described as presenting the cosmic adminstrative rule of El
by his sons.
We find within Israelite religion two variations of the same high god.
These different versions of Elism show that this god was variously
worshipped depending upon location. The places mentioned in the psalm
are all north of Kedesh, itself mentioned, and located in far the north
of Palestine near Dan. This location would have brought Yahwism in
contact with Canaanite thought that may well explain its distinctly
early Oracles of Balaam provide a look at other aspects of pre-Yahwistic,
Israelite religion (The following is mostly the translation of the
The War Oracles
The First Oracle
[Balak brought me from Aram,
The king of Moab from the hills of Kedem,
"Come, curse Jacob for me;
come, denounce Israel."
How shall I curse one when El has not curse?
How shall I denounce when El does not denounce?]
Yes, from the tops of the crags I see him,
From the hills I observe him.
See, a people dwelling apart,
Not reckoned among the nations.
Who can count the dust of Jacob?
Who can number the clouds of Israel?
May I die the death of the just!
May my end be one with theirs!
Oracle (Num 23:18-24)
[Arise, Balak, and listen,
Give ear to me, son of Zippor.]
El is no man that he should lie,
No son of Adam to draw back.
Is it his to say and not to do,
To speak and not fulfill?
The charge laid on me is to bless,
I shall bless and not take it back.
I have seen no evil in Jacob,
I marked no suffering in Israel.
[Yahweh his god is with him,
for him sounds the royal acclaim.]
El brought him out of Egypt,
he has the strength of the wild ox.
There is no omen against Jacob,
No divination against Israel.
Though men say to Jacob,
and say to Israel, "What wonder has El to show?"
Here is a people like a lioness rising,
Poised like a lion to spring;
Not lying down till he has devoured his prey
And become drunk on the blood of his victims.
The Third Oracle
The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
The oracles of the man with the far-seeing eyes,
The oracles of one who hears the word of El.
He sees what Shaddai makes him see,
Receives the divine answer, and his eyes are opened.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob!
How fair your dwellings, O Israel.
Like valleys that stretch afar,
Like gardens by the banks of a river,
[Like aloes planted by Yahweh],
Like cedars beside the waters!
A hero arose from their stock,
he reigns over a multitude,
Their king is greater than the Agag,
his majesty is exalted.
El brought him out of Egypt
he has the strength of the wild ox.
He feeds on the carcass of his enemies
and breaks their bones in pieces.
He has crouched; he has lain down,
like a lion, like a lioness;
who dare rouse him?
Blessed be those who bless you,
and accursed be those who curse you!
Oracle (Num 24:15-19)
The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
The oracle of the man with the far-reaching eyes,
The oracle of the one who hears the words of El,
of the one who knows the knowledge of Elyon,
he sees what Shaddai has him see,
receives the divine message and his eyes are opened.
I see him--but not in the present,
I behold him--but not close at hand:
a star from Jacob takes the leadership,
a scepter arises from Israel.
It crushes the brows of Moab,
the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
Edom is a conquered land;
Seir his enemy is conquered.
Israel exerts his strength,
Jacob dominates his enemies
and destroys the fugitives of Ar.
very probably dealing with authentic oracles that were actually uttered
before Joshua by none other than the famed Aramean seer, Balaam. The
fact that Balaam has appeared also in an Egyptian source indicates that
he was a real individual with an international reputation for his
prognostic abilities. Further, there is nothing in the oracles
themselves to suggest that they are the product of archaizing. The
oracles appear to be authentic oracles delivered in the upper 13th
century before a group of Israelite leaders known as "The Men of
oracles, the same god is referred to as El, Elyon and Shaddai.
Therefore, the longer forms of El Elyon and El Shaddai are authetic
titles for the same deity. It remains a question as to where each
particular title may have been preferred. El Elyon has strong ties with
the city of Jerusalem. This may suggest that the other two titles of El
and Shaddai were favored by other groups. Jacob's experiences at Bethel,
Penuel and the altar Jacob called "El elohe yisra'el" all
suggest that the Aramean migrants addressed their god simply as
"El." Both Shaddai and Elyon are additional attributes given
to him by the cult.
Given that we
are dealing with actual oracles, we would want to ask about the concrete
setting that gave birth to these utterances. There can be little doubt
that these words were spoken before the an official body of Israelite
rulers. Indeed, it would have been these rulers who would have contacted
Balaam and made arrangements with him to appear before them to deliver
his oracles regarding Israel.
Reading these oracles, one finds that they are very optimistic if not
enthusiatic about the nation's welfare. One obtains the impression that
Balaam is saying just what the rulers want to hear. The leaders, after
all, would have expected some flattery from their hired seer.
The Oracles announce that El will not curse Israel but that he regards
Israel as a blessed, unique and numerous people that is to be envied. El
is celebrated for bringing his people out of Egypt. El’s strong
blessing of his people renders omens and divination ineffective. El's
historic presence with them is shown by their past victories and by the
fierceness of their armies. The national vigor is such that Israel seeks
to get drunk with the blood of its victims. Even the beautiful physical
landscape of Palestine is alluded to as evidence of favor of El.
Besides delivering a message that seems directed at national pride,
Balaam's third and fourth orcles turn toward politics. Now he speaks
about the future which his second sight allows. He sees a hero who will
arise to become the leader of a powerful kingdom. He is a fierce warrior
whom El has brought out of a Egypt. He will arise out of Jacob/Israel
and lead a victorious campaign against Moab, the sons of Sheth, and Edom
as Israel exerts its strength to dominate its enemies. Balaam's
political message is basically favorable war oracle.
One wonders what Balaam knew of Israel's political situation when he
gave these oracles. The description of the king who is to arise fits
Joshua so closely that we might suspect that the "Men of
Israel" may have been considering making Joshua king, that Balaam
knew of this, was expected to address the issue, and so delivered a
favorable word from El. In this light we might compare the use of the
sacred lots through which Saul was selected to be king (1 Sam 10:17-24).
Balaam's alleged ignorance of the future king that he saw may have been
a charade, adopted as part of his performance as a seer. The Men of
Israel may well have been already considering to go to war against the
Transjordan and were in the process of selecting their leader. Joshua
seemingly fit the predicted one so perfectly that one may wonder if
coincidence can explain it. It appears that we here see the Men of
Israel on the brink of making Joshua the king of Israel because El has
spoken favorably through his servant Balaam.
So we see that the gods El and Yahweh are distinct gods from each other,
as distinct as their individual names. Yahweh was worshipped as a war
god from the deserts of southern Palestine who migrated north to Judah
while El was the god of Israel whose home was Mesopotamia. Historically
speaking, the two gods must be regarded as originally distinct that
subsequently were related and finally identified through political and