In the Canaanite religion, or Levantine religion as a whole, Eli or Il was the supreme god, the father of humankind and all creatures and the husband of the goddess Asherah as recorded in the tablets of Ugarit.
The word El was found at the top of a list of gods as the Ancient of gods or the Father of all gods, in the ruins of the Royal Library of the Ebla civilization, in the archaeological site of Tell Mardikh in Syria dated to 2300 BC. He may have been a desert god at some point, as the myths say that he had two wives and built a sanctuary with them and his new children in the desert. El had fathered many gods, but most important were Hadad, Yam, and Mot.
Linguistic forms and meanings
In Northwest Semitic usage ʾl was both a generic word for any "god" and the special name or title of a particular god who was distinguished from other gods as being "the god", or in the monotheistic sense, God. Ēli is listed at the head of many pantheons. Eli was the father god among the Canaanites.
However, because the word sometimes refers to a god other than the great god Ēli, it is frequently ambiguous as to whether Ēli followed by another name means the great god Ēli with a particular epithet applied or refers to another god entirely. For example, in the Ugaritic texts ʾil mlk is understood to mean "Ēli the King" but ʾil hd as "the god Hadad".
The Semitic root 'lh may be related (Arabic ʾilāh, Aramaic 'alāh, 'elāh, Hebrew 'elōah). In Ugaritic the plural form meaning "gods" is ʾilhm, equivalent to Hebrew ʾelōhîm "gods". But in Hebrew this word is also regularly used for semantically singular "God" or "god". (See Elohim).
The stem ʾl is found prominently in the earliest strata of east Semitic, northwest Semitic, and south Semitic groups. Personal names including the stem ʾl are found with similar patterns both in Amorite and South Arabic which indicates that probably already in Proto-Semitic ʾl was both a generic term for "god" and the common name or title of a single particular "god" or "God".
Also in Northwest Semitic the typical belief and thought for El is that he controls the Moon and the Sun. In the myth, while he controls them they often fight for a place as his favorite. The results, day, night, day, night, are often explained as following. When it is day, the Sun has beaten the Moon. When it is night, the Moon has beaten the sun. When this myth formed it was not known that one part of the planet was in night and one in dark. They said that no heavenly body won twice in a row, except on the days of the eclipse.[original research?]
Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hittite texts
A proto-Sinaitic mine inscription from Mount Sinai reads ʼlḏ‘lm understood to be vocalized as ʼil ḏū ‘ôlmi, 'ʼĒl Eternal' or 'God Eternal'.
The Egyptian god Ptah is given the title ḏū gitti 'Lord of Gath' in a prism from Lachish which has on its opposite face the name of Amenhotep II (c. 1435–1420 BCE) The title ḏū gitti is also found in Serābitṭ text 353. Cross (1973, p. 19) points out that Ptah is often called the lord (or one) of eternity and thinks it may be this identification of ʼĒl with Ptah that lead to the epithet ’olam 'eternal' being applied to ʼĒl so early and so consistently. (However in the Ugaritic texts Ptah is seemingly identified instead with the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Khasis.)
An eternal bond has been established for us. Ashshur has established (it) for us, and all the divine beings and the majority of the group of all the holy ones, through the bond of heaven and earth for ever, ...
However the text is translated by Cross (1973, p. 17):
The Eternal One (‘Olam) has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of El,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.
In some inscriptions the name ’Ēl qōne ’arṣ meaning "ʼĒl creator of Earth" appears, even including a late inscription at Leptis Magna in Tripolitania dating to 2nd century (KAI. 129). In Hittite texts the expression becomes the single name Ilkunirsa, this Ilkunirsa appearing as the husband of Asherdu (Asherah) and father of 77 or 88 sons.
In a Hurrian hymn to ʼĒl (published in Ugaritica V, text RS 24.278) he is called ’il brt and ’il dn which Cross (p. 39) takes as 'ʼĒl of the covenant' and 'ʼĒl the judge' respectively.
Amorite inscriptions from Zinčirli refer to numerous gods, sometimes by name, sometimes by title, especially by such titles as ilabrat 'god of the people'(?), il abīka 'god of your father', il abīni 'god of our father' and so forth. Various family gods are recorded, divine names listed as belong to a particular family or clan, sometimes by title and sometimes by name, including the name Il 'god'. In Amorite personal names the most common divine elements are Il ('God'), Hadad/Adad, and Dagan. It is likely that Il is also very often the god called in Akkadian texts Amurru or Il Amurru.
For the Canaanites, Eli or Il was the supreme god, the father of mankind and all creatures. He may have been a desert god at some point, as the myths say that he had two wives and built a sanctuary with them and his new children in the desert. El had fathered many gods, but most important were Hadad, Yam, and Mot, each share similar attributes to the GrecoRoman gods: Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades respectively.
Three pantheon lists found at Ugarit begin with the four gods ’il-’ib (which according to Cross [1973; p. 14] is the name of a generic kind of deity, perhaps the divine ancestor of the people), Ēl, Dagnu (that is Dagon), and Ba’l Ṣapān (that is the god Haddu or Hadad). Though Ugarit had a large temple dedicated to Dagon and another to Hadad, there was no temple dedicated to Ēl.
Ēl is called again and again Tôru ‘Ēl ("Bull Ēl" or "the bull god"). He is bātnyu binwāti ("Creator of creatures"), ’abū banī ’ili ("father of the gods"), and ‘abū ‘adami ("father of man"). He is qāniyunu ‘ôlam ("creator eternal"), the epithet ‘ôlam appearing in Hebrew form in the Hebrew name of God ’ēl ‘ôlam "God Eternal" in Genesis 21.33. He is ḥātikuka ("your patriarch"). Ēl is the grey-bearded ancient one, full of wisdom, malku ("king"), ’abū šamīma ("father of years"), ’ēl gibbōr ("Ēl the warrior"). He is also named lṭpn of unknown meaning, variously rendered as Latpan, Latipan, or Lutpani ("shroud-face" by Strong's Hebrew Concordance).
The mysterious Ugaritic text Shachar and Shalim tells how (perhaps near the beginning of all things) Ēl came to shores of the sea and saw two women who bobbed up and down. Ēl was sexually aroused and took the two with him, killed a bird by throwing a staff at it, and roasted it over a fire. He asked the women to tell him when the bird was fully cooked, and to then address him either as husband or as father, for he would thenceforward behave to them as they call him. They saluted him as husband. He then lies with them, and they gave birth to Shachar ("Dawn") and Shalim ("Dusk"). Again Ēl lies with his wives and the wives give birth to "the gracious gods", "cleavers of the sea", "children of the sea". The names of these wives are not explicitly provided, but some confusing rubrics at the beginning of the account mention the goddess Athirat who is otherwise Ēl's chief wife and the goddess Rahmay ("Merciful"), otherwise unknown.
In the Ugaritic Ba‘al cycle Ēl is introduced dwelling on (or in) Mount Lel (Lel possibly meaning 'Night') at the fountains of the two rivers at the spring of the two deeps. He dwells in a tent according to some interpretations of the text which may explain why he had no temple in Ugarit. As to the rivers and the spring of the two deeps, these might refer to real streams, or to the mythological sources of the salt water ocean and the fresh water sources under the earth, or to the waters above the heavens and the waters beneath the earth.
In the episode of the "Palace of Ba‘al", the god Ba‘al/Hadad invites the "70 sons of Athirat" to a feast in his new palace. Presumably these sons have been fathered on Athirat by Ēl in following passages they seem be the gods (’ilm) in general or at least a large portion of them. The only sons of Ēl named individually in the Ugaritic texts are Yamm ("Sea"), Mot ("Death"), and Ashtar, who may be the chief and leader of most of the sons of Ēl. Ba‘al/Hadad is a few times called Ēl's son rather than the son of Dagan as he is normally called, possibly because Ēl is in the position of a clan-father to all the gods.
The fragmentary text RS 24.258 describes a banquet to which Ēl invites the other gods and then disgraces himself by becoming outrageously drunk and passing out after confronting an otherwise unknown Hubbay, "he with the horns and tail". The text ends with an incantation for the cure of some disease, possibly hangover.
In the Tanakh, ’elōhîm is the normal word for a god or the great god (or gods, given that the 'im' suffix makes a word plural in Hebrew). But the form ’ēl also appears, mostly in poetic passages and in the patriarchal narratives attributed to the P source. It occurs 217 times in the Masoretic text: 73 times in the Psalms and 55 times in the Book of Job, and otherwise mostly in poetic passages or passages written in elevated prose. It occasionally appears with the definite article as hā’Ēl 'the God' (for example in 2 Samuel 22.31,33–48).
The theological position of the Tanakh is that the names Ēl and ’Ĕlōhîm, when used in the singular to mean the supreme and active 'God', refer to the same being as does the name, Yahweh. All three refer to the one supreme god who is the god of Israel, beside whom other gods are supposed to be either non-existent or insignificant. Whether this was a longstanding belief or a relatively new one has long been the subject of inconclusive scholarly debate about the prehistory of the sources of the Tanakh and about the prehistory of Israelite religion. In the P strand, YHVH says in Exodus 6.2–3:
I revealed myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Ēl Shaddāi, but was not known to them by my name, Yahweh.
This affirms the identity of Yahweh with either Ēl, in his aspect of Shaddāi, or with a god called Shaddāi. Also affirmed is that the name Yahweh is a more recent revelation. One scholarly position is that the identification of Yahweh with Ēl is late, that Yahweh was earlier thought of as only one of many gods, and not normally identified with Ēl. In some places, especially in Psalm 29, Yahweh is clearly envisioned as a storm god, something not true of Ēl so far as we know (though true of his son, Ba'al/Hadad). (Noted Parallel: El is derived from Sumerian Enlil, God of Wind) It is Yahweh who fights Leviathan in Isaiah 27.1; Psalm 74.14; Job 3.8 & 40.25/41.1, a deed attributed both to Ba’al/Hadad and ‘Anat in the Ugaritic texts, but not to Ēl. Such mythological motifs are variously seen as late survivals from a period when Yahweh held a place in theology comparable to that of Hadad at Ugarit; or as late henotheistic/monotheistic applications to Yahweh of deeds more commonly attributed to Hadad; or simply as examples of eclectic application of the same motifs and imagery to various different gods. Similarly, it is argued inconclusively whether Ēl Shaddāi, Ēl ‘Ôlām, Ēl ‘Elyôn, and so forth, were originally understood as separate divinities. Albrecht Alt presented his theories on the original differences of such gods in Der Gott der Väter in 1929. But others have argued that from patriarchal times these different names were indeed generally understood to refer to the same single great god, Ēl. This is the position of Frank Moore Cross (1973). What is certain is that the form ’ēl does appear in Israelite names from every period including the name Yiśrā’ēl ('Israel'), meaning 'ēl strives' or 'struggled with él'.
According to The Oxford Companion To World Mythology (David Leeming, Oxford University Press, 2005, page 118), "It seems almost certain that the God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El, who was in all likelihood the 'God of Abraham'...If El was the high god of Abraham - Elohim, the prototype of Yahveh - Asherah was his wife, and there are archeological indications that she was perceived as such before she was in effect 'divorced' in the context of emerging Judaism of the seventh century B.C.E. (See 2 Kings 23:15)"
The more traditional Orthodox Jewish opinion explains the depictions of Yahweh as performing these deeds attributed to other gods in the Ugaritic, etc. traditions as making the theological point that there is but one God and He is responsible for all natural forces and everything divine. This would cast Him in the roles that previously other gods had, as god of the weather and he who conquers deep sea creatures, etc.
The apparent plural form ’Ēlîm or ’Ēlim 'gods' occurs only four times in the Tanakh. Psalm 29, understood as an enthronement psalm, begins:
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to Yahweh, sons of gods (bênê ’Ēlîm),
Ascribe to Yahweh, glory and strength
Psalm 89:6 (verse 7 in Hebrew) has:
For who in the skies compares to Yahweh,
who can be likened to Yahweh among the sons of gods (bênê ’Ēlîm).
Traditionally bênê ’ēlîm has been interpreted as 'sons of the mighty', 'mighty ones', for, indeed ’ēl can mean 'mighty', though such use may be metaphorical (compare the English expression God-awful). It is possible also that the expression ’ēlîm in both places descends from an archaic stock phrase in which ’lm was a singular form with the m-enclitic and therefore to be translated as 'sons of Ēl'. The m-enclitic appears elsewhere in the Tanakh and in other Semitic languages. Its meaning is unknown, possibly simply emphasis. It appears in similar contexts in Ugaritic texts where the expression bn ’il alternates with bn ’ilm, but both must mean 'sons of Ēl'. That phrase with m-enclictic also appears in Phoenician inscriptions as late as the 5th century BCE.
One of the other two occurrences in the Tanakh is in the "Song of Moses", Exodus 15.11a:
Who is like you among the gods (’ēlim), Yahweh?
The final occurrence is in Daniel 11.36:
And the king will do according to his pleasure; and he will exalt himself and magnify himself over every god (’ēl), and against the God of gods (’ēl ’ēlîm) he will speak outrageous things, and will prosper until the indignation is accomplished: for that which is decided will be done.
There are a few cases in the Tanakh where some think ’ēl referring to the great god Ēl is not equated with Yahweh. One is in Ezekiel 28.2, in the taunt against a man who claims to be divine, in this instance, the leader of Tyre:
Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre: "Thus says the Lord Yahweh: 'Because your heart is proud and you have said: "I am ’ēl (God), in the seat of ’elōhîm (God or gods), I am enthroned in the middle of the seas." Yet you are man and not ’ēl even though you have made your heart like the heart of ’elōhîm ('God' or 'gods').'"
Here ’ēl might refer to a generic god, or to a highest god, Ēl. When viewed as applying to the King of Tyre specifically, the king was probably not thinking of Yahweh. When viewed a general taunt against anyone making divine claims, it may or may not refer to Yahweh depending on the context.
In Judges 9.46 we find ’Ēl Bêrît 'God of the Covenant', seemingly the same as the Ba‘al Bêrît 'Lord of the Covenant' whose worship has been condemned a few verses earlier. See Baal for a discussion of this passage.
Psalm 82.1 says:
’elōhîm ('God') stands in the council of ’ēl
he judges among the gods (elohim).
This could mean that God, that is Yahweh, judges along with many other gods as one of the council of the high god Ēl. However it can also mean that God, that is Yahweh, stands in the divine council (generally known as the Council of Ēl), as Ēl judging among the other members of the Council. The following verses in which God condemns those whom he says were previously named gods (elohim) and sons of the Most High suggest God is here indeed Ēl judging the lesser gods.
An archaic phrase appears in Isaiah 14.13, kôkkêbê ’ēl 'stars of God', referring to the circumpolar stars that never set, possibly especially to the seven stars of Ursa Major. The phrase also occurs in the Pyrgi Inscription as hkkbm ’l (preceded by the definite article h and followed by the m-enclitic). Two other apparent fossilized expressions are arzê-’ēl 'cedars of God' (generally translated something like 'mighty cedars', 'goodly cedars') in Psalm 80.10 (in Hebrew verse 11) and kêharrê-’ēl 'mountains of God' (generally translated something like 'great mountains', 'mighty mountains') in Psalm 36.7 (in Hebrew verse 6).
For the reference in some texts of Deuteronomy 32.8 to 70 sons of God corresponding to the 70 sons of Ēl in the Ugaritic texts see ’Elyôn.
Christians accept the Hebrew Tanakh as part of scripture, generally translating El (אֱל) as "god" or "God." Some Christians take the Tanakh's use of the plural "Elohim" (אֱלהִים) for God as confirming the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
According to church fathers of early Christianity, El was the first Hebrew name of God. Dante Alighieri in his De vulgari eloquentia suggests that the name was the first sound emitted by Adam: While the first utterance of humans after birth is a cry of pain, Dante assumed that Adam could only have made an exclamation of joy, which at the same time was addressing his Creator. In the Divina commedia, however, Dante contradicts this by saying that God was called I in the language of Adam, and only named El in later Hebrew, but before the confusion of tongues (Paradiso, 26.134).
Unlike Jews and mainstream Christians, Latter-day Saints identify Elohim as a distinct deity from Yahweh, whom they identify with Jesus Christ. Elohim is viewed as God the Father, while Yahweh, or Jesus Christ, is identified as God's begotten Son.
In the euhemeristic account of Sanchuniathon Ēl (rendered Elus or called by his standard Greek counterpart Cronus) is not the creator god or first god. Ēl is rather the son of Sky and Earth. Sky and Earth are themselves children of ‘Elyôn 'Most High'. Ēl is brother to the god Bethel, to Dagon, and to an unknown god equated with the Greek Atlas, and to the goddesses Aphrodite/’Ashtart, Rhea (presumably Asherah), and Dione (equated with Ba’alat Gebal). Ēl is father of Persephone who dies (presumably an otherwise unknown Semitic goddess of the dead) and of Athene (presumably the goddess ‘Anat).
Sky and Earth have separated from one another in hostility, but Sky insists on continuing to force himself on Earth and attempts to destroy the children born of such unions until at last Ēl, son of Sky and Earth, with the advice of the god Thoth and Ēl's daughter Athene attacks his father Sky with a sickle and spear of iron and drives him off for ever. So he and his allies the Eloim gain Sky's kingdom. In a later passage it is explained that Ēl castrated Sky. But one of Sky's concubines who was given to Ēl's brother Dagon was already pregnant by Sky and the son who is born of this union, called by Sanchuniathon Demarûs or Zeus, but once called by him Adodus, is obviously Hadad, the Ba‘al of the Ugaritic texts who now becomes an ally of his grandfather Sky and begins to make war on Ēl.
Ēl has three wives, his sisters or half-sisters Aphrodite/Astarte (‘Ashtart), Rhea (presumably Asherah), and Dione (identified by Sanchuniathon with Ba‘alat Gebal the tutelary goddess of Byblos, a city which Sanchuniathon says that Ēl founded).
Unfortunately Eusebius of Caesarea, through whom Sanchuniathon is preserved, is not interested in setting the work forth completely or in order. But we are told that Ēl slew his own son Sadidus (a name that some commentators think might be a corruption of Shaddai, one of the epithets of the Biblical Ēl) and that Ēl also beheaded one of his daughters. Later, perhaps referring to this same death of Sadidus we are told:
But on the occurrence of a pestilence and mortality Cronus offers his only begotten son as a whole burnt-offering to his father Sky and circumcises himself, compelling his allies also to do the same.
A fuller account of the sacrifice appears later:
It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Cronus then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called Iedud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.
The account also relates that Thoth:
... also devised for Cronus as insignia of royalty four eyes in front and behind ... but two of them quietly closed, and upon his shoulders four wings, two as spread for flying, and two as folded. And the symbol meant that Cronus could see when asleep, and sleep while waking: and similarly in the case of the wings, that he flew while at rest, and was at rest when flying. But to each of the other gods he gave two wings upon the shoulders, as meaning that they accompanied Cronus in his flight. And to Cronus himself again he gave two wings upon his head, one representing the all-ruling mind, and one sensation.
This is the form under which Ēl/Cronus appears on coins from Byblos from the reign of Antiochus IV (175–164 BCE) four spread wings and two folded wings, leaning on a staff. Such images continued to appear on coins until after the time of Augustus.
A bilingual inscription from Palmyra (KAI. 11, p. 43; KAI 129) dated to the first century equates Ēl-Creator-of-the-Earth with the Greek god Poseidon. Going back to the eighth century BCE the bilingual inscription (KAI 26) at Karatepe in the Taurus Mountains equates Ēl-Creator-of-the-Earth to Luwian hieroglyphs read as da-a-ś , this being the Luwian form of the name of the Babylonian water god Ea, lord of the abyss of water under the earth. (This inscription lists Ēl in second place in the local pantheon, following Ba`al Shamîm and preceding the Eternal Sun.)
Poseidon is known to have been worshipped in Beirut, his image appearing on coins from that city. Poseidon of Beirut was also worshipped at Delos where there was an association of merchants, shipmasters, and warehousemen called the Poseidoniastae of Berytus founded in 110 or 109 BCE. Three of the four chapels at its headquarters on the hill northwest of the Sacred Lake were dedicated to Poseidon, the Tyche of the city equated with Astarte (that is ‘Ashtart), and to Eshmun.
Also at Delos that association of Tyrians, though mostly devoted to Heracles-Melqart, elected a member to bear a crown every year when sacrifices to Poseidon took place. A banker named Philostratus donated two altars, one to Palaistine Aphrodite Urania (‘Ashtart) and one to Poseidon "of Ascalon".
Though Sanchuniathon distinguishes Poseidon from his Elus/Cronus, this might be a splitting off of a particular aspect of Ēl in a euhemeristic account. Identification of an aspect of Ēl with Poseidon rather than with Cronus might have been felt to better fit with Hellenistic religious practice, if indeed this Phoenician Poseidon really is Ēl who dwells at the source of the two deeps in Ugaritic texts. More information is needed to be certain.
- Robert du Mesnil du Buisson: "Le décor asiatique du couteau de Gebel el-Arak", in BIFAO 68 (1969), pp.63-83
- Matthews 2004, p. 79.
- Smith 2001, p. 135.
- Wyatt 2002, p. 43.
- Binger 1997, p. 92.
- Kugel 2007, p. 423.
- Fontenrose 1974, p. 213.
- Scott C. Jones - Rumors of wisdom: Job 28 as poetry, Volumes 978-21472 (p. 84)
- Binger, Tilde (1997). Asherah: goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament, Continuum International Publishing Group
- Kugel, James L (2007). How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, Simon and Schuster.
- Matthews, Victor Harold (2004). Judges and Ruth, Cambridge University Press
- Smith, Mark S. (2001). The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel's polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts, Oxford University Press US
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- Bruneau, P. (1970). Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l'époque hellénistique et à l'époque imperiale. Paris: E. de Broccard.
- Cross, Frank Moore (1973). Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-09176-0.
- Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy (1974). Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins, Biblo & Tannen Publishers.
- Rosenthal, Franz (1969). "The Amulet from Arslan Tash". Trans. in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 658. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03503-2.
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