El, god of Israel --Yahweh, god of Judah
Dr. L. M. Barré

Due 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:

Yahweh is a warrior
Yahweh is his NAME

The cultic celebration of Yahweh from the Song of Deborah also portrays him as a warrior:

Yahweh, 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,

Before 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.

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:

And as the ark set out Moses would say,
"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."

Here 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):

Yahweh came 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.

The 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:

Jabal, 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.

Here we 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 Aramean.

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 Mesopotamian ancestor.

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 Canaanite quality.

The early Oracles of Balaam provide a look at other aspects of pre-Yahwistic, Israelite religion (The following is mostly the translation of the Jerusalem Bible):

The War Oracles of Balaam

The First Oracle (Num 23:6-10)

[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!

The Second 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 (Num 24:3-9)

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!

The Fourth 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.

We are 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 Israel."

In the 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 religious syncreticism.



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