El & Elohim
Idol names or designations for the heavenly hosts?
Although ancient Bible manuscripts use the terms El and Elohim in referring to the heavenly hosts, some reject these titles because they were also used for pagan idols. Is it proper to employ these words for the Father and Son, even though they were used for such idols as those of the Canaanites?
The Ras Shamra tablets, discovered in 1929, brought light that the head of the pantheon of idols worshiped at ancient Ugarit in today's Western Syria was indeed called El (or "Il"). He is pictured as the father of the other idols, though he himself had a father called "Heaven" who was a shadowy figure.
El was a mighty one not only at Ugarit, but also in many other Semitic cultures. According to G. Ernest Wright in Biblical Archaeology, El was also the head of the Amorite pantheon. In fact, El is found in personal names in some of the oldest Semitic sources, including the old Akkadian cuneiform texts dated before 2350 B.C.E. (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, supplementary volume, article on El).
El occurs either as a personal noun or as the generic term for mighty one in almost every Semitic language, including the recently discovered and formerly unknown language of the Ebla tablets.
Some scholars think the people known as the Habiru may be closely related to the ancient Hebrews. This could have been the term used by the Egyptians and Canaanites to describe the Hebrews, as possibly evidenced in the Tell-el-Amarna letters (14100 B.C.E.). The Habiru called their mighty ones "Ilani" (plural in cuneiform script) which some scholars think to be identical with the Hebrew Elohim.
Is There Guilt by Association?
The widespread occurrence of El in these Semitic languages raises a fundamental question that must be addressed: was the title "El" or "Elohim" first applied to the true Creator, later being corrupted and used to designate pagan idols? This could easily have been the case and is most likely true of the sacred Name Yahweh.
Arguments against the use of El and Elohim because of pagan association might also be employed against the use of Yahweh. A "YW" element was also found in the Ras Shamra tablets, which some scholars think may relate to Yahweh. The Ebla tablets show that an idol called Ya was worshiped there. Ya occurs as an element in compound names at Ebla, one being "ya-ra-mu" which also occurs in the Bible as Joram and means "Yah is exalted."
Ya has also been found as an element in lists of idols from Fara (in Iraq) and in Sumerian documents from the third dynasty at Ur (Giovanni Pettinato, "Ebla and the Bible," Biblical Archaeological Review, Nov./Dec. 1980). Since the sacred Name has no doubt been known from creation, we can only conclude that sometime after the flood it was corrupted by pagan societies and used by them—or at least the "Ya" element was.
Anyone who holds a faith in the bible must believe that monotheism (belief in one Mighty One) was the original belief and that the polytheism (many mighty ones) of pagan societies became a later corruption of worship. The prevailing view of modern liberal scholarship is that Moses originated the monotheistic faith of Israel, and that the Genesis accounts are only fables that Israel borrowed from Babylon. This has led to many errors in thinking and doubts about the validity of the Bible.
A Worship Divided
Stephen Langdon, professor and archaeologist, found evidence at the ancient city of Kish that monotheism was the original belief there, though it later became extremely polytheistic. He found a gradual lessening of the pantheon at Kish until only two deities were found in the earliest period. These two were "Anu the sky-god and Innini the Queen of heaven."
We should probably relate these two idols to Nimrod and Semiramis. The same evidence was corroborated at Erech, which was one of the cities that made up Nimrod's kingdom (Genesis 10:10). The findings of Dr. Langdon, brought out in his book Semitic Mythology, point to a primitive monotheistic deity with the name "An" meaning heaven, sky.
Alexander Hislop, in The Two Babylons, confirms that a corruption of True Worship began at Babylon under Nimrod. This is where paganism and polytheism began. Because El and Yahweh were known before Nimrod, he or others after him corrupted their use, associating them with paganistic concepts.
The Hebrew forbears can be traced back to the land the bible calls Padan-Aram (Genesis 28:7) or Mesopotamia (Genesis 24:10). This is the land of Terah, Nahor and Haran. When Abraham and Isaac were dwelling in the land of Canaan, they forbade their sons to marry Canaanite women, but they would send to Padan-Aram for their wives (compare Genesis 24:1-10 with 28:1-5).
Jacob is pictured as a wandering Aramean in Deuteronomy 26:5. This is an allusion to his association with the area of Padan-Aram. This is also the land of Nimrod, the "land of Shinar," and Babylon.
A conglomeration of religious ideas could be found here in the "land of the two rivers." Abraham was called out of this paganistic environment to witness for the existence of the true Elohim as opposed to the false concept of many mighty ones.
From biblical evidence he and his descendants continued to use the generic terms for mighty ones that they had no doubt used in Padan-Aram, applying them to the true Creator. "El" was used by Jacob in naming several significant places or worship sites. Examples are Bethel (Genesis 28:19), Peniel (Genesis 32:30), El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:20) and El-Bethel (Genesis 35:7).
El in the Prophets' Names
Another point that cannot be overlooked is the use of El in personal names, especially in the names of prophets such as Eliyah, Elisha, Samuel, Daniel, Joel, Ezekiel and others. Eliyah definitely links El with Yah. It would be necessary to rename most of the prophets if El is not a proper term for the Almighty.
We should also note Yahshua's use of El, especially in His cry from the tree during His impalement recorded in Matthew 27:46, "...Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani...." This Aramaic phrase was not translated. It is probably from the oldest New Testament text. Those nearby thought Yahshua called for Eliyah (verse 47).
If He referred to the Father as "my El," it would be no crime for us to do the same. Yahshua Himself is referred to as El in the adjective "Emmanuel" (Matthew 1:23). This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14—El with us.
Since El was so widely used in Semitic culture, we cannot say with any certainty where or when it originated. The evidence seems to conclude that El and Elohim were simply common Semitic, generic terms for any mighty one, and this is the way we find it used in the Bible.
It was applied to pagan idols (Genesis 31:30, 35:2; Exodus 12:12, 20:30, 22:20, 34:15, 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; Deuteronomy 3:24; Isaiah 21:9; Jonah 1:5) as well as to Yahweh Himself (Genesis 1:1, 14:18, 14:19, 17:1; Exodus 3:6, 3:15). The difference is that El and Elohim were not applied to Yahweh as a personal proper noun as it came to be in some pagan societies (i.e., Amorite, Ugaritic).
The Common Denominator
There would need to be some generic term for mighty one in Hebrew as well as the other Semitic languages. The term that is common to them all is El. This is no surprise since the Semitic languages as well as the Semitic peoples are related. Such a common term would more than likely go back to the fountainhead of Semitic culture and the line of Noah's son Shem.
It is not difficult to visualize how the use of El came to be so widespread and eventually misused and applied to pagan idols.
We should surely try to remove paganism from our worship. But modern liberal scholars would have us believe that almost every custom and belief of Israel was learned from their pagan neighbors. The seventh-day Sabbath was also observed in Babylon, and liberal scholars tell us this is where Israel learned it. If we believed them instead of the Genesis account, we would have to reject the Sabbath because of pagan association.
We must distinguish between the truth, and where and in what way the truth was misused and abused.
Feel free to contact us with comments, questions or more information and may Yahweh guide you in your search for truth in His words!