El defines Israel

L. M. Barré

The 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.

Israel 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.

When the 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.

An 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.

When the 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.

In 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.

Jeroboam 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.

In 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.

However, 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.

The 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.

Both 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.



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