The Third Person IV: El and Yahweh

Quietly, in post-Biblical Judaism, there arises an actor, God’s Shekinah, who substitutes for God in interactions with the material world. The term Shekinah does not occur in the Hebrew Bible. It did not originate among the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria or Antioch. It did not originate among the Pharisees at the Temple in Jerusalem. It did not originate in Talmudic writings. It did not come from the scrolls of the Essenes. Rather, it came from the Aramaic speaking land of Biblical Palestine in the years leading up to the time of Christ; it first appears in the Targums, an Aramaic oral and written literature consisting of commentary on passages from the Bible and of homilies to be delivered in the synagogues in the towns and villages of Biblical Palestine; this is the world of John the Baptist and of Jesus of Nazareth, the two cousins who both met a politically charged death. This Shekinah of the folk Judaism of Palestine is a precursor of the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of God in the physical world as a presence or actor. The God of Jewish monotheism is a male figure; however, the Shekinah is female (and in the Kaballah actually becomes a full fledged goddess in her own right). So how did this female principle enter Judaism in the post-Biblical period, in the years before the advent of Christianity at a time when a monotheism built around an aloof male deity was at last firmly established in Judaism? Mystère.

To get to the bottom of this, we have to put the history of Judaism in a larger context. First, in the Middle East and the Mediterranean area, the local deities were generally headed up by a husband-wife pair: Zeus and Hera among the Greeks, Jupiter and Juno among the Romans, Anu and Ki among the Sumerians, Osiris and Isis among the Egyptians, El and Asherah among the Canaanites.

The Hebrew Bible assigns a Sumerian origin to Abraham who hails from the legendary city Ur of the Chaldees. Then there is the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their escape from the Pharaoh followed by the (bloody) conquest of the Promised Land of Canaan. However, from the historical and archeological evidence, it is best to consider the Israelites simply as part of the larger the Canaanite world. For a lecture by Professor William Dever on supporting archaeological research, click HERE ; for historical scholarship by Professor Richard Elliott Bernstein, see The Exodus (Harper Collins, 2017). Admittedly, such revisionism provides for a less exciting a story than the Biblical tale with its plagues and wars, but it does place the Israelites among the creators of the alphabet, one of the most powerful intellectual achievements of civilization.

As the Israelites differentiated themselves from other dwellers in the Land of Canaan, they replaced polytheism with monotheism. But ridding themselves of the principal god El would prove complicated. First, this name for God is used some 2500 times in the Hebrew Bible in its grammatically plural form Elohim; when Elohim is the subject of a sentence, the verb, however, is third-person singular – this is still true in Hebrew in Israel today. In a similar way, the god Baal is referred to as Baalim throughout the Hebrew Bible.

It is also noteworthy that the Arabic term for Allah is derived from “El” and means “The [single] God.” In fact, the name Israel itself is usually construed to mean “may El rule”; however, others claim, with scholarship at hand, that the origin is the triad of gods Is Ra El, the first two being Egyptian deities. For its part, Beth-El means “House of God”; some scholars trace Babel back to the Akkadian for “Tower of God.”

“El” also survives in the names of angels such as Michael, Raphael and Gabriel: respectively, “who is like God,” “healer from God,” and “God is my strength.” Interestingly, despite their frequent appearances there, angels are not given names in the Hebrew Bible until books written in the 2nd century B.C: in the Book of Daniel, Michael and Gabriel appear; Raphael appears in the Book of Tobit – despite its charm, this work is deemed apocryphal by Jewish and Protestant scholars. In the Quran, Gabriel and Michael are both mentioned by name. In the Gospels, the angel Gabriel plays an important role while Michael is featured in the Book of Revelation in the story of the fallen angels and in the Epistle of St. Jude where he is promoted to Archangel.

Racing forward to modern times, the angelic el-based naming pattern continues with the names of Superman’s father Jor-El and Superman’s own name Kal-El. That the authors of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were both children of Jewish immigrants may well have had something to do with this.

But in addition to Elohim, there is another denotation in the Hebrew Bible for the God of the Israelites – the four Hebrew consonants יהוה (YHWH in the Latin alphabet); in the Christian world this name is rendered simply as God or as Yahweh or less frequently as Jehovah. This designation for God is used over 6500 times in the Hebrew Bible!

One reason for the multiple ways of designating God is that the Hebrew Bible itself is not the work of a single author. In fact, scholars discern four main authorships for the Torah, the first five books, that are called the Elohist, the Yahwist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly Source. The texts of these different authors (or groups of authors) were culled and merged over time by the compilers of the texts we have today. As the nomenclature suggests, the Elohist source generally uses Elohim to refer to God while the Yahwist source generally uses YHWH.

This kind of textual analysis serves to explain some discrepancies and redundancies in the Hebrew Bible. For example, there are two versions of the creation of humankind in Genesis. The first one appears at the beginning (Genesis 1: 26-28) and concludes the sixth day of Creation; it is attributed to the Elohist author – there is no reference to Adam or Eve, and women and men are created together; : the King James Bible has

    Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

While these poetic verses are well known, there is that more dramatic version: Adam and Eve, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the apple, original sin, naked bodies, fig leaves, etc. This vivid account is in the following chapter, Genesis 2:4-25, and this version of events is attributed to the Yahwist author.

For Michaelangelo’s treatment of the creation, click  HERE

Another example of a twice told tale in Genesis is the account of the deluge and Noah’s Ark – but in this case doing things in pairs is most appropriate!

There are various theories as to the origin of the figure of Yahweh. One school of thought holds that a god with the name Yahweh was a Canaanite deity of lower rank than El who became the special god of the Israelites and displaced El.

However, in the Bible itself, in Exodus, the Yahwist writer traces the name to the time that God in the form of a burning bush is speaking to Moses; here is the King James text of Exodus 3:14

    And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

The thinking is that the consonants YHWH form a code – a kind of acronym – for the Yahwist’s “I AM”. With this interpretation, these four letters become the tetragrammaton – the “ineffable name of God,” the name that cannot be said. Indeed, when reading the Hebrew text in a religious setting, there where the tetragrammaton YHWH is written, one verbalizes it as “Adonai” (“Lord”), thus never pronouncing the name of God itself. With this, the God of the Israelites emerges as a transcendent being completely different from the earthy pagan deities – a momentous step theologically.

But in the original Canaanite Pantheon, El was accompanied by his consort Asherah, the powerful Mother Goddess and Queen of Heaven. For images of Asherah, click HERE.

Moreover, Asherah is also described as the consort of Yahweh on pottery found in Biblical Palestine. Indeed, inscriptions from several places including Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the northeast Sinai have the phrase “YHWH and his Asherah.” For an excellent presentation of the archeological record of Asherah worship by professor and author William Dever, click HERE .

It would seem that Asherah is a natural candidate to provide the missing link to the Shekinah which would solve our current mystery. But Judaism is presented to us as a totally androcentric monotheism with no place for Asherah or other female component. Indeed, Asherah will not be found in the Septuagint, the masterful Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done in Alexandria in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC; Asherah will not be found in the Latin Vulgate, the magisterial translation of the Bible into Latin done in the 4th Century by St. Jerome; and Asherah will not be found in the scholarly King James Bible. Something’s afoot! A case of cherchez la femme! Have references to her simply been redacted from the Hebrew Bible and its translations? Mystère.

One thought on “The Third Person IV: El and Yahweh

  1. I very much appreciated the scholarship of this piece. These connections were unknown to me, and I particularly liked the sociological integration of the spiritual and religious systems.

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