Much has been made of the fact that the common Hebrew word for God in the Book of Genesis, Elohim, translates to gods in the plural. This is however a narrow view that needs some context.
El in Ebla
The name El first appears in fragmented records from around 2300 BCE. These ancient texts are from the city of Ebla in southern Syria and were written in a difficult to translate Semitic language. Although it is not possible to gain any insight into the cult of El at that time there are indications that he was viewed as supreme amongst the gods.
During this time period Ebla was under the political influence of the city-states of Sumer. The city would eventually be partially destroyed by the Akkadians as they united Mesopotamia into an empire. Despite this misfortune Ebla would survive and so would the worship of El.
El and Enlil/Ellil
El could be seen as an aspect of Enlil, the Sumerian chief god. When spoken in Akkadian Enlil becomes Ellil. Furthermore in Akkadian Ellil is used to designate not only a particular deity but also to indicate any supreme god with the title “Ellil ili;” which literally means “Ellil of the gods” but infers “king of the gods.” This connection is strengthened by Ellil’s association with the granting of divine kingship to mortals.
After the Ebla period clear evidence of El vanishes from the historical record for over five hundred years. When El emerges again it is to the west of Ebla in the region that had connected Ebla with Egyptian trade, Canaan. Early sources of information on the Canaanite Pantheon come from the city of Ugarit which was located on the Syrian coast. Dating from around 1200 BCE these texts offer most of the information known about the Canaanite gods.
The lack of evidence for any cults of the god El does not suggest a lack of activity because much of this period’s history is poorly documented. Furthermore when El emerged in the Canaanite Pantheon he was positioned as the “Father of the Gods” with his rank having remained intact; something that cannot be said for his Akkadian alter ego Ellil who was suborned by Marduk by the early second millennium BCE.
The myths name El as father to several notable deities including Hadad, Yam, and Yahweh. Hadad, the storm god, is often known simply as “The Lord” or “Baal” and his cult formed the basis for the later Greek god Adonis. One of the possible rivals of Baal was his brother Yahweh. Yahweh is usually understood with the Hebrew stem HWH as “He (the god) who is”. However, Yahweh can also be also be viewed in the context of a “son of god” with a G stem which would imply “He who is revealed (as God).”
Canaanite Pantheons often varied in their traditions as to the exact relationships amongst the gods. Each city also had its own particular patron deity, this process allowed popular worship in Ugarit of Baal, whereas to the east in Ebla, Dagan, the grain god, was revered as the primary son of El.
In the Ugaritic texts the children of El are the ‘ilhm, literally the “sons of God”. In Hebrew the word,‘elôhîym, conventionally transcribed as “elohim” has the same inference meaning “the gods.” However in the Masoretic Hebrew texts the same word is also used to mean “God” as a designation for supreme deity in a fashion similar to Ellil ili.
Elohim as God
The use of Elohim as a reference to “God” in the singular tense is made clear by the verb conjugation. This word use should not be seen as inferring an ambiguity about monotheism on the behalf of the early writers of the texts. Rather it would be easier to understand the influence of polytheistic words on their writings, which were constrained, as in all times, by the limits of language. Although early Jews understood that other people worshiped other gods they acknowledged only one “true” God.
The world view of the ancient writers also informed their wordage. For example, during the Late Bronze Age, around the same time as the Canaanite mythos was active in the Levant, the term Pharaoh came into use as a title for the king of Egypt. Until this time the Egyptian word per-aa, which had been in use since the Old Kingdom, was used to designate the royal court but not the king individually.
During this epoch of history a tremendous amount of power was wielded by a few kings who dominated all of the Near East. From the time of Babylon’s Hammurabi (ca 1800 BCE) with Marduk, to Egypt’s Akhenaten (ca 1350 BCE) with the Aten, empires had consolidated religious beliefs along with political ones.
By the time that Jewish people returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity of the sixth century BCE the Canaanite mythos was no longer a family of gods that connected the cities of the region under the leadership of El. Ugarit, which has provided so much archaeological evidence on the Canaanite gods, was long since destroyed. Also gone was most of the evidence of early Iron Age kingdoms, let alone Bronze Age empires.
All that remained of the Bronze Age world that had written the old myths were the traditions and folklore. Along the coastal regions of Canaan Baal worship was one of the major religions in practice and the storm god’s main rival was Yam, god of the sea. Baal, who is depicted numerous times in the Bible as a rival of the Hebrew god, may have even assumed his father’s duties as chief god.
This contest between the sea and storm gods likely offered little interest to landlocked Jerusalem. So the returning Jews spent the following centuries revitalizing the worship of their city’s patron deity from the old pantheon, Yahweh. In so doing they often referred to him with intentional reminiscence as Elohim to remind the reader that their god was the Supreme God.
- Johnson, Sarah, (Religions of the Ancient World, Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2004)
- Strong, James, (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nelson, Nashville, 1990)