Saturday Series: Genesis 17

Last week, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Our study illustrated the importance of historical criticism in analyzing passages such as many in the Pentateuch which record, or refer to, historical traditions coming from an ancient religious/cultural background that is quite foreign to most of us today. This is one aspect of what we call the grammatical-historical method. The fundamental principle involved is that, in studying a passage of Scripture, one must first (and primarily) examine how it would have been understood by the author(s) and original audience of the work. As far as we are able today, at this distance removed, to determine the meaning of the words and phrases in the language of the time, and to reconstruct the historical background of the passage—this is the foundation upon which reliable interpretation must begin. If we fail to consider the original context properly, it is likely that our interpretation will misguided or seriously flawed in important ways.

Today, I wish to examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed last week, the Hebrew word b§rî¾ (tyr!B=) refers to a binding agreement, usually between two parties. They may be parity agreements (i.e. between equal parties), or agreements (treaties, etc) made with a superior; there are many examples of the latter in the surviving ancient Near Eastern texts and inscriptions from the 2nd-1st millennium, usually referred to as suzerainty treaties—that is, between a suzerain (state or ruler) and his vassal(s). Rather unique in this regard is the way that this standard agreement-type was adapted in the ancient Israelite context, to establish the relationship between God (El-Yahweh) and the people of Israel. Such an agreement, by its very nature, follows the suzerainty-treaty pattern—of a superior ruler (God) and his faithful/loyal vassals.

Genesis 17

In many ways, the covenant episode in chapter 17 parallels that in chap. 15 (discussed last week), to the point that many critical scholars view them as variant (traditional) versions of the same essential historical episode, emphasizing different aspects. According to the standard “Documentary Hypothesis” analysis, accepted by many commentators, Genesis 15 is part of the “J” (J/Yahwist) source, using the divine name YHWH (Yawheh) throughout. By contrast, chapter 17 is usually attributed to the so-called “Priestly” (“P”) strand, viewed both as a distinct source, as well as an editorial layer which incorporated earlier traditional material (from “J”, etc). The divine ‘name’ used in chap. 17 (except for the initial references in verse 1), is the plural °§lœhîm (“Mighty Ones”, i.e. “Mightiest”[?]), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. In this regard, historical criticism often blends into source criticism, which is an especially difficult (and often highly speculative) area of Biblical Criticism. Traditional-conservative commentators (along with a few critical scholars) are less willing to accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” source analysis, at least not without serious qualification. Indeed, if we read the texts here at face value, it would seem that chapters 15 and 17 occur at very different points in Abraham’s life. In Gen 17:1, it is stated that Abraham was 99 years old, whereas in Gen 15, presumably, he would have been somewhat closer to the 75 years indicated in 12:4. And, if we accept the essential historicity of the narratives, and the traditions recorded therein, then we would have to posit two distinct historical episodes.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that the nature of the agreement (or covenant) recorded in chapter 17 differs in several important ways from that in chap. 15.

First, there is different language used. Of course, this could be due to a difference in the source of the tradition itself. One need not accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” entirely in order to realize that the consistent use of “Yawheh” vs. “Elohim” suggests a different source for the tradition. This would seem to be confirmed by the use of the divine name (or epithet) Šadday (yD^v^). This is an ancient title, the meaning of which may well have been lost for later Hebrew-speakers, much as it is still uncertain for scholars today. The name occurs in the Old Testament independently (preserved in poetry, Gen 49:25; Psalm 68:14; 91:1; 30 times in the book of Job, etc), and also attached to the divine name °E~l (la@), as here (and 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod 6:3). The original meaning may have been something like “the mountainous One”, “the One of the Mountain”, etc. Deities in the ancient world were often associated, in various ways, with mountains, symbol of the numinous and as a meeting point between heaven and earth. Even before the revelation at Sinai, the Creator God El-Yahweh would have been connected with important mountains and high places. The mountain is also symbolic of height, greatness, exaltedness, etc., and this connotation was likely understood in the name. For Abraham, and the earliest Israelites, the one true God would have been called °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”; see my earlier discussion on this name). According to Exod 6:3, when El-Yahweh appeared to the Patriarchs, it was not by the name YHWH, but as El-Shaddai.

If we were to posit a tentative source-reconstruction of chapter 17, it might be as follows:

    • An ancient tradition, passed down from the time of the Patriarchs, which speaks of God (El [Shaddai]) appearing to Abraham and establishing an agreement with him
    • An editing layer (Mosaic/or post-Mosaic) which identifies the God of the Patriarchs as Yahweh (verse 1).
    • A layer of traditional editing, including normalized translation, etc, which uses the common name/title for God (Elohim) throughout, when El (not Yahweh) was used in the original tradition.

Apart from the use of divine name(s), there are other differences in language and terminology between chapters 15 and 17. For example, instead of the idiom “cut an agreement” (15:18), we have “give [i.e. make] an agreement” (17:2). There is also the repeated expression, b§rî¾ ±ôl¹m, “agreement of [i.e. lasting into] (the) distant (future)”, i.e. “eternal/everlasting agreement” (verses 7, 13, 19). The terminology describing the inheritance of the Promised Land, etc, is also distinct, compared with chapter 15.

Second, the character of the covenant agreement is not the same. While the principal themes are comparable (the promise of descendants for Abraham, the land they will inherit, etc), the form of the agreement itself differs. In Genesis 15, the agreement takes the form specifically of a grant of land to Abraham (and his descendants) as a reward for his faithful service. The binding obligation is entirely upon the superior party (God), and it is He who, symbolically, passes between the pieces, indicating that he his bound to fulfill the agreement. By contrast, in chapter 17, the agreement is binding on both parties—God and Abraham—and it is also a conditional agreement. This is summarized and stated simply in vv. 1b-2:

“Walk before me and be complete, and I will give [i.e. make] my binding-agreement between me and you…”

God’s part of the agreement, his obligation, is described in verses 4-8, entailing (1) giving descendants (a vast number) to Abraham, and (2) assigning the land which they will possess. The fundamental religious nature of this agreement is capped by the closing words, “and I will be God [Elohim] for them”.

Abraham’s part of the agreement, which is to continue on with his descendants, is narrated in vv. 9-14. It fundamentally consists of a promise to maintain the agreement, marked by the rite of circumcision.

Third, there is no sacrificial ritual associated with the covenant agreement in chapter 17. As I noted above, instead of the expression “cut an agreement” (indicating the cutting up of an animal), we have here “give/make and agreement”. However, there is still cutting involved, but of an entirely different sort. It is the rite of circumcision—to “cut off” (mûl) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (°ô¾) of the agreement, marked in the person’s flesh. However, the act of cutting does, in fact, still carry a connotation similar to the cutting up of an animal in the covenant ceremony. Recall that the underlying idea of the cutting symbolized the fate of the person who violated the agreement—i.e., “just as this animal is cut up, thus it will be for {so-and-so} if he/they were to break this agreement”. In this instance, Abraham and his descendants are to “cut off” the male foreskin, signifying their loyalty to the covenant; if they violate the covenant, they likewise will be “cut off” (verse 14).

An important observation to make here, as with many points in Old Testament tradition, is that both the covenant agreement forms, and the rite of circumcision itself, are not unique to Israel, nor were they invented and introduced in the time of Abraham. On the contrary, they follow customs and practices already established and widespread in the ancient Near East. Indeed, various forms of male circumcision are known from ancient and traditional cultures worldwide. This establishes the important principle that God, in the Scriptures, deals with his people in terms that they will understand, accommodating many of the ideas and practices established in the culture at large. In so doing, however, the traditional forms are given a new meaning and significance; and this is certainly the case with the rite of circumcision. At two key points, the Israelite ritual of circumcision may be said to be unique:

    • It is to be performed on the eighth day after birth. This differs from many traditional practices, where circumcision is related to puberty and/or pre-nuptial rites. The Israelite is marked as belonging to God, obliged to follow the covenant agreement he established, from the very time of birth. The eighth day may be connected with the traditional seven-day creation period, or, more generally, with the symbolic idea of seven as indicating completeness. Similarly, according to Exod 22:29, a first-born animal is dedicated on the eighth day after birth. This is likely tied to ancient concepts surrounding purity and sacrificial ritual (see Lev 22:27).
    • As a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham (and his descendants), circumcision fundamentally has a religious, rather than cultural, significance. Whereas in many cultures it marks rites of passage, i.e. into adulthood and one’s place within society, for Israelites, circumcision signifies their identity as a people belonging to God, i.e. God’s own people.

Thus we find two distinct covenant-models in Genesis 15 and 17, each with specific characteristics, as recorded in Scripture:

    1. The first is characterized by:
      (a) The superior party has the sole binding obligation
      (b) This takes the form of a land grant to his faithful ‘vassal’ (Abraham and his descendants)
      (c) It is accompanied by the ceremonial ritual involving the cutting-up of an animal (and passing between the pieces)
    2. The second is characterized by:
      (a) Both parties have binding obligations
      (b) It takes the form of a promise (of descendants for Abraham), and that the superior party (God) will continue to show favor, upon the condition that the vassal-party (Abraham and his descendants) fulfills its promise to uphold the covenant agreement
      (c) It is not accompanied by any ritual slaughter of animals, but involves the cutting of (human) flesh in the rite of circumcision

As you consider these different points of emphasis, turn to Exodus 24 and read the third key covenant episode recorded there. What are your thoughts regarding these distinctive covenant forms—how they are used by God, and how they are presented in the Scripture narrative? What does each episode tell you about the ancient covenant concept, and how such traditions developed within the unique matrix of Israelite religion? Think about these questions, read and study each passage (again) carefully…and I will see you next Saturday.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 1:23

Matthew 1:23

In the previous note (for Christmas Day) I discussed the structure of the first episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative, 1:18-25—in particular, the actual birth announcement in vv. 20-21 and the declaration (by the Angel) of the child’s name (Yeshua/Jesus). Today, I will be looking at the Scripture cited in vv. 22-23. This is the first such citation formula used by the author (one of at least 11 in the Gospel). Each of the three main sections in the Infancy narrative—1:18-25; 2:1-12, and 2:13-23—contains at least one Scripture quotation (cf. 2:15, 17-18, 23, as well as vv. 5-6) indicating that the events being narrated are a fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy in this section is part of the oracle in Isaiah 7:1-17. The oracle, properly speaking, occurs in verses 3-9. What follows in vv. 10ff is the sign given by God confirming the truth of the message, much as we see in the Lukan annunciation episodes (Lk 1:19-22, 35-37). Here in Matthew, the Scripture citation functions as a different sort of sign—one which confirms the divinely-guided nature of the event as a fulfillment of God’s word (and promises) to his people in ancient times.

The declaration in Isa 7:14 is justly famous, being applied by early Christians to Jesus as a Messianic prophecy. The Greek of Matthew’s version appears to be an (intentional) adaptation of the original text, whether working from the Hebrew or a Greek translation (such as the LXX). Here is a rendering of Matthew’s version, with the Hebrew (in translation) given below:

“See!—the virgin will (come to) have (a child) in (the) womb,
and she will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son, and they will call his name Immanuel”

“See!—the young (maid)en [hm*l=u*h*] will be(come) pregnant [hr*h*] and she will bring forth [i.e. bear] a son,
and she will call his name ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E~l, “God”] (is) with us’ [la@ WnM*u!].”

The main difficulty, and a longstanding point of controversy, is the translation of the Hebrew word am*l=u* (±¹lmâ). It is usually translated in Greek by nea=ni$, literally a “young/youthful woman”. However, this does not quite capture the sense of the Hebrew; the particular root <lu signifies something strong, vigorous, virile, etc, and, when applied to a young female, it often connotes a girl who has just (recently) come into sexual awareness and maturity. In the context of ancient Israelite society, such a young woman, at a marriageable age, would typically be a virgin, though am*l=u* does not mean this specifically; indeed a different word (hl*WtB=, b§¾ûl¹h) is used to emphasize virginity. It is significant, then, that the Septuagint (LXX) translates am*l=u* in Isa 7:14 with parqe/no$, rather than nea=ni$. The word parqe/no$ is of uncertain origin, but it came to mean specifically a virgin (male or female), as in 1 Cor 7:25ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4. In only one other place, does the LXX translate am*l=u* this way—in Gen 24:43 (cf. vv. 14, 16). I have discussed the matter extensively in an earlier Christmas series of notes.

It is likely that the word parqe/no$ was used in Isa 7:14 (as in Gen 24:43) to emphasize the purity of the woman and the sacredness of the scene—the special situation attending the child and his birth. Neither in the original Hebrew, nor in the LXX version, is there any clear sense that this is a miraculous birth, let alone a virginal conception. The significance of this child was as a sign confirming the oracle in vv. 3-9. For the various theories regarding the identity of this child, and an overall interpretation of vv. 10ff, cf. the aforementioned Christmas series above. One conclusion is inescapable: the original historical and literary context does not refer to a (distant) future savior/ruler figure, but to something expected to occur in the general time frame of the prophet—the reign of Ahaz and/or his son Hezekiah. Based on the use of the name ±Immanû °E~l in Isa 8:8-10, and a comparison with the language in 2 Kings 18:7, it seems likely that Hezekiah is the immediate point of reference. This is not to say that a Messianic interpretation by Jews and early Christians should be considered invalid, but that it ought to be regarded as a secondary interpretation or application, pointing to events of a future time (such as the birth of Jesus). I would argue strongly that such a view is perfectly compatible with any reasonable and legitimate doctrine of inspiration, and can be amply documented by many Old Testament passages which the New Testament authors have adapted or taken out of their original context (cf. my earlier article on this aspect of Scriptural prophecy).

It is quite possible that the author of the Matthean Infancy narrative (trad. Matthew) is among the first Christians to make an explicit connection between Isa 7:14 and the birth of Jesus, though the passage may be reflected in Lk 1:28, 31 and the Messianic associations in the Lukan narrative as well. There can be no doubt that Matthew emphasizes the miraculous (virginal) nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, stating it even more directly than Luke (cf. below). It is mentioned four times in this opening section (vv. 18, 20, 23, 25). It is also certain that the Angel’s announcement to Joseph (vv. 20b, 21a) follows specifically, and is patterned after, the wording of Isa 7:14 (as cited by Matthew):

  • “the (child)…in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit
    the virgin will have (a child) in the womb”
  • “and she will produce a son”
    “and she will produce a son”
  • “and you will call his name…”
    “and they will call his name…”

It is hard to say to what extent a Messianic interpretation of Isa 7:14 was current among Jews in the 1st-century B.C./A.D.; it is not particularly attested as such in the surviving Qumran texts and other literature of the period. It would not have been difficult, however, for Jews and early Christians to recognize the possible Messianic significance of the prophecy (as of that in Isa 9:1-7 [Heb 8:23-9:6]). This would be enhanced by the idea that Jesus’ conception was truly miraculous, and the work of the Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35 and the italicized words above).

When we turn to the name ±Immanû °E~l (Greek  )Emmanouh/l), we find a sentence-name or title which includes the divine name-element °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); for more background information and detail, cf. my earlier article on °E~l. The explanation the Gospel writer gives in verse 23 generally matches the actual translation of the name, as used in Isa 8:8, 10—”God [°E~l] (is) with us” or “God (be) with us”. In the original context of the prophecy, it is a fitting name for a ruler, indicating the divine protection and aid God brings to his reign and his kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). The Gospel writer, of course, recognizes something deeper than this, as he sets the name as a precise parallel with Y¢šûa±, a name explained as embodying the help and deliverance (salvation) God is bringing to his people (in the person of Jesus). Indeed, the meaning of the name Immanuel relates to two important aspects of (early) Christian belief:

  • Jesus as the Son of God—his deity manifesting the presence of God himself (“God with you”)
  • The power/work of the Holy Spirit—the abiding presence of God (and Christ) with believers is realized through the Spirit

This latter idea is more prominent in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, but note the closing words of Jesus in Matthew (28:20): “I am with you…”.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:19-20, 26

Luke 1:19-20, 26ff

Today’s note continues the previous study on the Angelic birth-announcement to Zechariah (vv. 13-17). It is worth pointing out again the close similarities between the Angelic appearances to Zechariah and Mary, both of which follow a similar pattern from the Old Testament narratives (on this, cf. the discussion in Brown, Birth, pp. 155-8, 292-8). Apart from the basic parallel between Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary (related to the wider John/Jesus parallel), which includes the element of childlessness—in each case the woman is incapable of conceiving at the time of the announcement—note the common elements in the two accounts:

  • Appearance of the Angel to the person (vv. 11, 26-28a)
  • The person is troubled/afraid (vv. 12, 29)
  • The Angel responds “Do not be afraid [mh\ fobou=]” and addresses the person by name (vv. 13a, 30a)
  • There is a declaration that God has heard/chosen (i.e. shown favor to) the person (vv. 13a, 30b)
  • An announcement of the child’s conception and coming birth, using a similar formula, and including a declaration of the child’s name (vv. 13b, 31)
  • Statement regarding the future destiny and (divine) role for the child (vv. 15-17, 32-33)
  • Question from the person as to how this can be, in light of the current condition of childlessness (barrenness/virginity) (vv. 18, 34)
  • Response by the Angel involving a sign confirming the message (vv. 19-20, 35-37)
  • A faithful response by the person to the announcement (vv. 21-25, 38)

The heavenly/angelic appearance to Zechariah draws upon, or echoes, three appearances in the Old Testament narratives:

The appearance to Mary brings in elements of the Samuel narrative (1 Sam 1-2), with Hannah serving as a type/pattern for Mary. There is an interesting sort of progression in the narratives cited above:

  • Gen 17 (also chap. 15)—it is God Himself (YHWH) who appears to Abraham
  • Gen 18—God Himself appears to Abraham (v. 1), it would seem, in the form of three Messengers (“three men”, v. 2)
  • Judg 13 (cf. also Gen 16:7-13)—it is the “Messenger of YHWH” (hwhy Ea^l=m^), i.e. the “Messenger/Angel of the Lord” (Greek a&ggelo$ kuri/ou)
  • Dan 9:21-24—the Angel who appears is Gabriel

The chronology of these traditions matches the (historical) development of Israelite/Jewish thought and theology regarding the relationship between God and the other heavenly beings (i.e. Angels). The Lukan narrative most clearly follows that of Judg 13:2ff and Dan 9:21-24—the being who appears to Zechariah (and then to Mary) is first called “the Messenger of the Lord” (v. 11), and then identified as Gabriel (v. 19):

“…the Messenger said to him, ‘I am Gabrîel, the (one) having stood alongside in the sight of God, and I was se(n)t forth to speak toward you and to give you the good message (regarding) these (thing)s’.”

The name Gabriel is a simplified transliteration of the Hebrew Ga»rî°¢l (la@yr!b=G~), a name which otherwise occurs in the Scriptures only in the book of Daniel (8:16; 9:21). In the post-exilic period, and subsequently in Jewish tradition, names were assigned (or recognized) for various heavenly beings (Angels) which had always been nameless in earlier tradition. Two other Angels are named in the (later) Scriptures—Michael (Dan 10:13; 12:1) and Raphael (deutero-canonical Tobit 3:17). Four others were added to these three, resulting in the traditional number of seven chief Angels, or beings, who stand in the presence of God (Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20; Rev 8:2). For more on the basic idea of Angels standing in God’s presence, cf. Job 1:6; Dan 7:16; Ezek 9:2; and the Testament of Levi 8 (Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 327-8). All of these Angels bear °E~l-names, which ultimately derive from old Israelite (and Semitic) tradition (cf. the earlier article on °E~l).

The name Ga»rî°¢l is a phrase- or sentence-name made up of two elements: (a) the noun ge»er (rb#G#), essentially referring to a strong (mighty, vigorous, successful) young man, i.e. a warrior or hero, and (b) the divine name °E~l (la@), “Mighty (One)”, i.e. “God”. It should probably be translated something like “My Strong One [i.e. Warrior] is God [°E~l]”. As an old °E~l-name, it reflects ancient warrior imagery associated with Yahweh/El, especially in relation to ritual warfare and the “holy war” tradition. The heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars, etc) were seen as moving together (‘marching’) as an army (the “hosts” of heaven). God himself would come with the clouds, controlling the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, etc. According to the religious (and mythic) traditions of the ancient Near East, all of these natural and meteorological phenomena could be utilized by God fighting on behalf of his people. So it was, in truth, for Israel in their understanding of Yahweh/El, and this is expressed various ways in Scripture, especially in older poetry (Exod 15:1ff; Judg 5:4-5, 20, etc); for other references, cf. the article on the names ‘Adôn/Baal. Eventually this warrior-imagery was reinterpreted and cast in a different theological light (in the Prophets, etc), but would resurface in later Jewish eschatology and Messianic tradition, such as in the writings from Qumran (the War Scroll, etc). The military role tended to be associated more with Michael, rather than Gabriel (cf. Dan 10:21; 12:1; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); yet Gabriel continued to have a prominent place in Jewish writings of the period, such as in the book of Enoch (9:1, 9-10; 20:7; 40:2, 9; 54:6; cf. Brown, Birth, p. 262).

Returning to the scene of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, adding the details from verses 19-20ff, we may construct the following dramatic (chiastic) outline:

  • Zechariah serving as priest in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 8-10ff)
    • Gabriel is sent to speak “these things” (tau=ta) to him (v. 19)
      • He gives the good news (eu)aggeli/sasqai)
    • Zechariah will be unable to speak until “these things” (tau=ta) happen (v. 20)
  • Zechariah comes out of the sanctuary (to give the priestly blessing) (vv. 21-22)

It is possible that this scene, with its Temple setting, reflects a traditional motif of receiving a revelation in the Temple, as, for example, in Isaiah 6:1-5ff (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.282f, etc). In the case of Isaiah, his vision also involves a transformative touching of the mouth (the lips). Isaiah, like John the Baptist, is divinely appointed and gifted to speak the word of God (cf. the use of Isa 40:1-5 in Lk 1:76-77; 3:4-6 par, etc). By contrast, Zechariah is rendered mute and unable to speak (1:20), until after the birth of John and the declaration of his name (vv. 57-64). As a result, he is unable to deliver (speak) the priestly blessing to the people waiting outside in the Temple court (vv. 21-22, cf. Num 6:24-26; Mishnah Tamid 7:2). In the overall context of Luke-Acts, this blessing is ultimately fulfilled by Jesus at the end of the Gospel (Lk 24:50-51). There is thus, perhaps, a greater symbolic importance to verse 23 than the simple narrative statement would suggest:

“And it came to be, as the days of his working in service (to God) were (ful)filled, he went (away) from (there) [i.e. from the Temple] into his own house [i.e. back home].”

It is the child Jesus who will, in a sense, take over in the Temple, serving in the house of God his Father (2:49).

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Names of God (‘Elyon)

In the final article of this series on the Names of God, I will be looking at two names—±Elyôn (/oyl=u#) and ±Ôl¹m (<l*ou)—both of which were mentioned in the earlier article on °E~l. Indeed, each of these names function as a title of the Creator God (°E~l), as well as being attested as a separate name, or, possibly, as the name of a distinct deity.

±Elyôn

The word ±elyôn (/oyl=u#) is an adjective with the basic meaning “high” (cf. the verb hlu, “go up, ascend”), and often used in the figurative sense of “exalted, great, mighty”, etc. It occurs more than 50 times in the Old Testament, including a significant number (around thirty) where it is used as an epithet of God (Yahweh/El). As a title of God, it is found primarily in older or archaic poetry (esp. the Psalms, cf. 9:2; 18:13; 21:7; 46:4; 50:13; 73:11; 77:10; 78:17, etc), and several times in the Pentateuch (Num 24:16; Deut 32:8). In a few of these instances, the title is used in combination, either with °E~l (cf. below), °E_lœhîm (Ps 57:2; 78:56), or Yahweh (Ps 7:17; 47:2); however, more often it stands alone as a name or title.

This latter point is significant, since ±Elyôn is known as a separate divine name in the Semitic world, attested, for example in an old Aramaic inscription (Sefire I), as well as in the (Phoenician) Theogony of Sakkunyaton perserved by Philo of Byblus and cited by Eusebius (Preparation for the Gospel I.10). In the Sefire text, °E~l and ±Elyôn appear to be regarded as a pair of closely related deities. The close connection of these names is no doubt due to several factors: (1) the similar sound, (2) a partly synonymous meaning (“Mighty/Great” and “High/Exalted”), and (3) similar concepts or characteristics of Deity (associated with the Sky/Heaven).

The combination °E~l ±Elyôn also occurs in the Old Testament, in two passages—Psalm 78 (v. 35, an example of relatively old Hebrew poetry), and the Abraham narrative in Genesis 14. In the setting of this latter passage, following his military victory over a coalition of cities, a campaign to rescue his nephew Lot (vv. 1-16), upon his return, Abraham meets Melchi-Zedek the king of Šalem (vv. 17-18), who is also said to be the priest to (or for) °E~l ±Elyôn. Translating into English, literally the compound name would be something like “Mighty (God), the High(est) One”, but it is typically rendered more simply as “God Most High”. Melchi-Zedek offers a two-fold blessing—both to Abraham and to God—and twice uses the name °E~l ±Elyôn (vv. 19-20), including the longer formula (repeated in v. 22):

°E~l °Elyôn, Creator [Qœnê] of Heaven and Earth”

This establishes and confirms the primary role of God (°E~l) as Creator, the verb hn`q* (q¹nâ), fundamentally meaning “bring forth, produce”, i.e. “create”. This verb, not to be mistaken with a similar root meaning “possess, acquire”, had become more or less obsolete at the time the Scriptures were written, being preserved here (and in Psalm 78) by way of older tradition.

The word ±elyôn was typically rendered rather literally in Greek by the (superlative) adjective u%yisto$ (“highest”), especially when rendering ±Elyôn as a name/title of God, as a substantive with the definite article—o( u%yisto$ (“The Highest”). As such, it occurs in the New Testament in Mark 5:7; Luke 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17, and also Heb 7:1 (referring to Gen 14:18ff). It appears three times in the Lukan Infancy narrative—1:32, 35, 76 (cf. also 2:14)—and will be discussed in the notes on these verses.

±Ôl¹m

The word ±ôl¹m (<l*ou) is somewhat difficult to translate into English. The root ±lm (<lu) may signify primarily something which is hidden, often in the temporal sense of something “hidden” in the distant/indefinite past or future. When applied to God, it should be understood in an intensive sense—i.e., of extending back in time to the very beginning (of Creation), or ahead indefinitely (“forever”). These two aspects combine in the usual rendering of ±ôl¹m as either “ancient” or “eternal”. It was regularly applied to God by the Canaanites and elsewhere in the Semitic world (cf. Cross, pp. 17-19, 46-50). It occurs as a divine name in a 7th-century B.C. Phoenician inscription (from Arslan Tash), most likely as a title of °E~l, as also attested in a 10th-century Egyptian list of Palestinian place names. In a (14th-cent.) text from Ugarit, °E~l is called malk ±ôlami (“ancient/eternal king”), and the specific title °E~l ±Ôl¹m may be found as early as the 15th-century proto-Canaanite (Sinaitic) inscriptions at Ser¹b£‰ el-–¹dem. A portion of one inscription (Mine M no. 358) has been deciphered to read °il ¼¥ ±ôlami—i.e., “°E~l the Ancient/Eternal (One)” (cf. Cross, pp. 18-22).

In the Old Testament, the compound name °E~l ±Ôl¹m occurs in Genesis 21:33 as part of an Abraham tradition associated with the site of Beer-sheba. The inclusion of the name Yahweh (hwhy) in the text probably reflects a subsequent interpretation, identifying Yahweh specifically with the (one) Creator God worshipped by the Patriarchs (cf. the earlier article on °E~l). Apart from this reference, the word ±ôl¹m is used frequently of God, in various ways. It can refer specifically to attributes or characteristics of God (Deut 33:15, 27; Isa 9:6; 26:4; 40:28; 60:19-20; Jer 10:10, etc), or to his actions toward his people, i.e. his love, covenant, and so forth (Gen 9:16; 17:7-8ff; 2 Sam 23:5; Psalm 105:10; Isa 24:5; 45:17; 54:8; 55:3; 61:8; Jer 31:3; 32:40, etc). Especially noteworthy for an understanding of the basic meaning of ±ôl¹m is the idiom “from ±ôl¹m unto ±ôl¹m“, indicating all time, from the very beginning into the far distant future (cf. Psalm 41:13; 90:2; 103:17; 106:48, etc). Reference should also be made to the use of term in connection with the Kingdom of God, especially in an eschatological and/or Messianic sense, drawing upon Psalm 145:13; Isa 9:6; Jer 10:10; and the book of Daniel (4:3, 34; 7:14, 27; 9:24).

In Greek, as in English, the word ±ôl¹m was rather difficult to translate; more often than not, some form of the noun ai)w/n or the related adjective ai)w/nio$ was utilized. The Greek word ai)w/n usually signifies a period of time, often a long time, and so is typically rendered in English as “age”. While the various Greek idioms involving ai)w/n, including those in the New Testament, can correspond to the Hebrew term ±ôl¹m generally, a very definite eschatological sense and context developed among Jews and early Christians. There was a strong belief that the current “age” was coming to an end, to be followed by a future/coming Age in which God Himself would rule over the earth directly, or through His representative the Anointed One (Messiah). The ushering in of this future Age would involve the great (Last) Judgment upon humankind, which, among early Christians, was associated specifically with the (impending) future return of Jesus. In a sense, the New Age of God had already begun with the first coming of Jesus (at his birth and earthly life), but would only be realized completely at his return. The word ai)w/n occurs several times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:55, 70), but most importantly, as part of the Angelic announcement to Mary of Jesus’ coming birth. This will be discussed in detail in the note on Luke 1:33.

References above marked “Cross” are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Names of God (‘Adon)

Today I will be discussing two names, or titles, applied to God in the Ancient Near East and in Israel. They are /wda* (°¹dôn) and ly^B^ (ba±al), and both have the basic meaning “lord”, being regularly translated in Greek by the word ku/rio$. Because of the frequent use of the Greek ku/rio$ as a name or designation of God (in the New Testament, etc), it is worth considering the meaning and usage of these terms in the Old Testament.

°A~dôn

The noun °¹dôn (/oda*) occurs hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Its exact etymology is somewhat uncertain, but it is clear that strength and the exercise of control are fundamental to the meaning. As such, it is at least partially synonymous with the word °¢l (la@, cf. the prior article), based on its presumed meaning (“mighty, great”). It is a common Semitic word, with cognates in Ugaritic and Akkadian (adannu). Typically, °¹dôn is translated “lord, master”, and, occasionally, “ruler”. Sometimes the idea of ownership is in view, though it may be said that the connotation of authority and control is more common. As with the word ba±al (cf. below), it is often used in the ordinary social context of the master of a household, which, in a patriarchal/patrilineal society, meant the leading male figure—father, husband, and/or eldest son. Thus °¹dôn could be used specifically of the husband in a marriage or family.

Within a religious setting, it is natural that the word would be applied as a title or epithet of God. As noted above, °¹dôn is, to some extent, synonymous with the words °¢l and °§lœhîm, corresponding generally to “God” in English. As a title, it also came to be connected specifically with the name Yahweh, as we see in Exod 34:23; Josh 3:13; Psalm 8:2, etc. The suffixed form, e.g. °¦dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord”, was used especially by Israelites in addressing God (Gen 15:2, 8; 18:3, et al), and so was fitting as a reverential substitution in lieu of uttering the name Yahweh (on this, cf. the previous article). Eventually, this substitution was widespread enough that Jewish translators of the Old Testament (into Greek) often rendered Yahweh as ku/rio$ (“Lord”) virtually throughout. A similar convention is adopted in many English versions, where the name Yahweh is translated “LORD” (in caps), which, of course, creates difficulties with the title °A_dôn (also translated “Lord”) when it is appears together with Yahweh.

Ba±al

Many Christians have a distorted understanding of the word ba±al (lu^B^), associating it exclusively with the worship of the pagan (Canaanite) deity “Baal”. However, it is actually a common Semitic word, with a range of meaning quite similar to °¹dôn (cf. above). It is used more than 160 times in the Old Testament, along with a number of other occurrences in personal and place names. Compared with °¹dôn, perhaps the emphasis is on ownership more so than authority/control; and ba±al is often translated as “master”. In its ordinary Hebrew usage, in a social context, it typically refers to the husband in a marriage and family, just as in English it was once common to use the expression “lord/master of the house”.

As was also the case with the word °¹dôn, ba±al could be applied to God, as “Lord” or “Master”. Such a title could be applied to any particular deity, and there is some evidence to indicate that, at earlier periods in Israelite history, it may have been used as a title for El/Yahweh. When we encounter personal names with the element ba±al, at a time when Yahweh/El was predominantly (or exclusively) worshiped, we must consider seriously the possibility that Yahweh is the “Lord/Master” (Ba±al) being referenced (on this, cf. below). However, eventually it was deemed inappropriate to use the title for Yahweh, since it had come to be associated so closely with the Canaanite deity called by that name.

The Canaanite “Baal” was more properly known by the name Haddu (or Hadad), viewed primarily as the personification of the storm—the power behind the (life-giving and restoring) waters in the rain and floods. With the development of agriculture in Syria-Palestine, the figure of Baal Haddu became increasingly prominent in the religious culture of the farming societies who were dependent on the rains and flooding of the rivers. The texts from Ugarit (14th-13th centuries B.C.), especially the so-called Baal Epic (CAT 1.1-1.6), depict a powerful young hero standing at the center of the natural order, with the seasonal cycle and the processes of fertility and growth, death and rebirth. In certain respects, this deity supplanted the old Creator god °E~l in importance—a situation which no doubt helps to explain the conflict between Baal/Haddu and Yahweh/El in Israelite religious history. As the early Israelites began to move into Palestine, especially in the conquest/settlement of the territories further north, they would have increasingly come into contact with established Canaanite religious beliefs and practices associated with Baal/Haddu. This conflict is expressed in the old tradition(s) recorded in Num 25 and in the early chapters of Judges—cf. the warning in Judg 2:1-5, followed by vv. 11-15, the formulae punctuating the various accounts (3:7, 12, etc), and, especially, in the Gideon narrative (6:11-35, see also 8:33-35).

The setting of the Gideon narrative, in particular, raises intriguing questions as to the relationship between Baal (or the name Ba±al) and Yahweh in Israel. Viewed through the lens of later tradition, there is an unequivocal hostility and incompatibility between the two; however, some of the early evidence, taken on its own merits, is rather more ambiguous, as indicated above. There are two possibilities which should be considered:

  • Instances were the title Ba±al (“Lord, Master”) is applied to Yahweh/El, without necessarily any direct connection with the Canaanite deity
  • Examples of syncretism, whereby Baal/Haddu and Yahweh/El were identified with each other, at some level, or religious beliefs/practices associated with each deity were combined

The two religious phenomena may also be related, with use of the title Ba±al having been influenced by syncretistic tendencies. The Gideon narrative itself suggests some degree of religious syncretism. According to the narrative (6:25-27), Gideon’s father had set up an “altar of Baal” and an “Asherah”, typically understood as Canaanite practices adopted by Israel, and here clearly opposed by God. Yet Gideon himself seems completely familiar with, and accepting of, the worship of Yahweh/El (vv. 11-18ff), despite his apparent family situation (cf. also 8:33-35), and the fact that his original name contains the element Ba±alYeruba±al, meaning something like “The Lord/Master [Ba±al] will contend”. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that, in the Semitic/Canaanite world, the title Ba±al was, at times, applied to the chief Creator God °E~l, such as in the titles “Lord of (the) Heavens” [i.e. Ba±l Šamêm] and “Lord of (the) Amanus(? mountain[s])” [Ba±l „amœn] (cf. Cross, pp. 7-8, 24-28). A number of Israelite personal names contain the (theophoric) element Ba±al, including the children of apparently ardent worshipers of Yahweh such as Saul, David and Jonathan (1 Chron 8:33-34; 14:7). It is possible that this may reflect Canaanite influence in Benjamin, etc (cf. Judg 1:21), but there is nothing in the traditions recorded in 1-2 Samuel to suggest that either Saul or Jonathan were particularly inclined toward ‘Baal worship’. Such names were disconcerting enough to Scriptural authors of the (later) Kingdom period that they were intentionally altered (cf. 2 Sam 4:4; 9:4ff, etc). The context of Hosea 2:16 [Hebrew v. 18] suggests that some Israelites of the time may have honestly been referring to Yahweh/El as Ba±al—”My Lord/Master [Ba±®lî]”, similar to “My Lord [°A_dœn¹y]” (cf. above).

Following the reign of Solomon, and into the period of the Divided Kingdom, Canaanite religion gained considerable influence over both the rulers (of Israel and Judah) and the culture as a whole. There came to be an increasingly sharp division between (a) strict Yahwists and (b) those willing to adopt Canaanite beliefs and practices, the latter no doubt reflecting a syncretic blending of Baal and Yahweh traditions, respectively. The Prophets of the Kingdom period (cf. the Hosea passage cited above) denounced, in no uncertain terms, any kind of religious expression associated with foreign deities, and, especially, any worship of “Baal” or “the Baals”—the plural often referring to a wide range of practices or to polytheistic (Canaanite) religion in general. Perhaps the most famous tradition is found in the Elijah narrative of 1 Kings 18, involving the priests of Baal, in which Canaanite religion is lampooned and ridiculed severely. In order to appreciate the strength of the syncretistic tendencies condemned repeatedly by the Prophets, one must realize the features and characteristics which Yahweh shared with Baal/Haddu:

By the time of the New Testament, the conflict between Baal and Yahweh had long since disappeared, with Canaanite Ba±al (Haddu) being preserved in Israelite/Jewish tradition as a ruler of the “demons” (daimons). According to the strict monotheism shared by Jews and early Christians of the period, all other ‘deities’ in the pagan world were either viewed as non-existent or relegated to the status of lesser, evil spirits. As Baal had been the most famous such deity in the Old Testament and Israelite history, it was natural that he take on the role of leader of these spirits—”Prince Ba±al” (Ba±al Z§»ûl, Greek Beelzebou/l) becomes “Prince of the demons” (Mark 3:22 par; Matt 10:25).

The words in the New Testament

As noted above, the word °¹dôn is typically translated in Greek as ku/rio$, both words meaning essentially “lord”. In the New Testament, as in other Jewish writings of the time, ku/rio$ also is used to translated the name Yahweh (hwhy), by way of the common substitution °A_dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord” (cf. above). The word ku/rio$ occurs more than 700 times in the New Testament, including 33 times in the Infancy narratives—several of these references will be discussed in the notes in this series.

The noun ba±al is also rendered in Greek by ku/rio$, while the word despo/th$ specifically emphasizes the aspect of ownership (as of a slave) and of possessing authority, and may similarly be translated “lord” or “master”. On occasion, despo/th$ can be used for the name Yahweh, in the vocative of personal address (“O [my] Lord/Master”). The noun appears only 10 times in the New Testament, but in a number of these instances it is used of God (and/or Christ). It occurs in Lukan Infancy narrative at Lk 2:29, a verse which I have discussed previously, and will address again in this series.

References above marked “Cross” are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Names of God (Elohim)

In yesterday’s article, I examined °E~l (la@) as the basic Semitic word used in the sense of “God” and, in particular, as the name of the chief Creator Deity. Today I will be looking at the related word °E_lœhîm (<yh!ýa$).

°E_lœhîm

Almost certainly this word is related in some way to the more primitive °E~l (°Il[u]); however, the precise relationship, and the origins of its usage, remain rather uncertain. The simple plural form of °¢l°¢lîm (<yl!a@)—is rare in the Old Testament (4 times), and only twice is it certainly a plural (in Exod 15:11 and Dan 11:36, cf. Cross pp. 45-46). By comparison, the plural form °§lœhîm (<yh!ýa$) is widely used (more than 2500 times)—both as a literal plural, and in a singular sense for “God” generally, or the Israelite Deity (Yahweh/El) in particular. The somewhat unusual application of this plural form for God definitely requires comment, and will be discussed below. One common theory to explain the form of the word is that the simple plural of a biconsonantal (two-letter) root la, i.e. <yl!a@ has been expanded (with the letter h [h]) to fit the pattern of a triconsonantal (three-letter) root (such as lwa or hla). In other words, the form °¢lîm becomes °§lœhîm. While not without certain difficulties, this is probably as good an explanation as any.

By the time the Old Testament Scriptures were written—i.e., in the period between c. 1200 and 500 B.C.—the plural form °§lœhîm had all but completely replaced the older °¢l as the basic word corresponding to “God” in English. This may not have been so much the case in the early part of the period, as we find vestiges of the older use of °¢l in (the archaic) portions of the Psalms, etc; but, certainly it is true in the later Kingdom period. In the ordinary plural sense, °§lœhîm would be translated straightforwardly as “mighty (one)s”, i.e. gods, when referring to the (divine) powers as understood by the ancient (polytheistic) religions of the time. In this plural sense, it can be used three ways in the Old Testament:

  • As “mighty ones” generally, i.e. a descriptive term which could refer either to human or divine beings—Exod 22:7-8; Psalm 82:1, 6, etc
  • For divine beings, in the basic sense of supernatural, heavenly beings (i.e. “Angels”) who reside in the heavenly court of God—Psalm 8:6, et al, where it is generally synonymous with the old Semitic expression “sons of God” (b®nê °¢l, or b®nê °¢lîm)
  • For (pagan) deities worshiped by the (Canaanite, etc) peoples surrounding Israel (i.e. “other gods”)—cf. Exod 20:3; 23:13; Josh 24:2, etc

More commonly, however, °§lœhîm refers to “God”, that is, to Yahweh/°E~l in Israelite religion. How did this plural word come to be used for the singular “God” in this sense? A completely satisfactory explanation to this question has not yet been offered. There are two which seem to me reasonably plausible:

  1. As a collective—i.e. “(all) the gods”. This might be a shorthand way of referring to God as the Creator of (all other) divine beings. Note the specific use of °§lœhîm throughout the Creation account in Gen 1:1-2:4, as well as the (apparent) fundamental meaning of the name hwhy (Yahweh) connected with the creation of the heavenly beings (cf. the next article, on “Yahweh”). There may be a rough parallel in Egyptian religion, where the Creator is called by the name Atum (i.e. the “All”). In a monotheistic context, it was a natural development that all other divine names and forms would be seen as embodied in the one true God.
  2. As an intensive—i.e. “the Mightiest“. This use of the plural is attested in Hebrew, primarily in the Psalms and other poetic passages, as in Psalm 21:7; 68:7; 76:11; Isa 32:18; 40:14, 26, etc. For more examples, cf. GKC §124 e. There is some evidence that, in the earliest strands of Israelite religion, Yahweh/°E~l was emphasized as the “Mightiest” or “Greatest” of all deities or divine beings, and, as such, was the one who should be worshiped. Over time, this would have developed into a more distinct and precise monotheism—i.e. God is the only Mighty One, the only divine Being. Once this monotheistic outlook came to dominate Israelite society completely, it was hardly necessary to qualify God (Yahweh) in this manner, and the “Mightiest” (°E_lœhîm) was simply understood as synonymous with (the one) God.

Probably the second of these two explanations is more likely than the first. To see how the names °E~l and °E_lœhîm were related in early Israelite tradition, we should turn to the formula in Gen 33:20, associated with the altar dedicated by Jacob near the city of Shechem. Here °E~l is identified as the “God” (°E_lœhîm) of Israel—”°E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra°¢l“. In a similar manner, Yahweh (hwhy) is identified as the one (true) God (°E_lœhîm) in the Creation Account of Genesis 1-2. The name °E_lœhîm is used throughout 1:1-2:4a, and Yahweh in chapter 2, but they are joined together in the transitional line 2:4b—”in the day (when) Yahweh °E_lœhîm made the heaven(s) and earth”.

In the New Testament, most of these distinctions have disappeared. When the basic Greek word qeo/$ (theós) is used, which more less corresponds with °§lœhîm, it is assumed that the reference is to the one God, the God of Israel (Yahweh/El), God the Father and Creator. This hardly needed to be explained to Greek-speaking Jews and Christians of the time. The word qeo/$ occurs more than 20 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (but only once in Matthew, at 1:23). It is especially prominent in the Angelic announcement to Mary (5 times in 1:26-37), the hymn of Zechariah (1:64, 68, 78), and the Angelic appearance to the shepherds (2:13-14, 20). Several of these passages will be discussed in the notes.

In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “GKC” = Gesenius-Kautsch-Cowley, i.e. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, edited/expanded by E. Kautsch, 2nd English edition by A. E. Cowley (Oxford University Press: 1910).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Names of God (El)

The initial articles of this series (cf. the Introduction) will focus on the names of God—the principal names and titles used of God in the Old Testament. In studying the religions of the Ancient World, from our modern (Western) standpoint with its generalized monotheism, the polytheism common to the vast majority of ancient and traditional cultures can seem most confusing. A multitude of names are used, and it is often difficult to know just what to make of them, especially when looking at the evidence of religion spanning many centuries. Names are apt to change their meaning and point of reference over time. Even with regard to the monotheism of ancient Israel, there is some uncertainty and ambiguity over the precise meaning of particular names as they have been preserved in the text of the Old Testament. By way of introduction, I would emphasize the following points to keep in mind, in terms of how names can be understood in an ancient religious context:

  • Names may refer to distinct deities (or concepts of God)
  • Multiple names may refer to the same deity (or concept)
  • Names may be titles or epithets used of a particular deity (who otherwise has a specific name)
  • Names may be evidence of syncretism—deities (and/or their names) regarded as synonymous or joined together in combination

The first name I will be looking at is Hebrew la@ (°E~l).

The Names of God: °E~l

The word la@ (°¢l) in Hebrew generally corresponds to “God” in English. It is an ancient Semitic word which was well-established and in wide use by at least the early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.), attested in every part of the Semitic-speaking world—in Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, south into Arabia and N. Africa, as well as in the Phoenician (Punic) colonies much further afield. It doubtless belongs to the earliest Proto-Semitic vocabulary, and has a basic meaning and usage similar to the early terms dingir () in Sumer and netjer (n¾r, ) in Egypt. The precise etymology remains uncertain, but the fundamental meaning of la@ would seem to be “mighty” or possibly “great, exalted”. It is often thought to be derived from the root lwa (°awl), but I suspect it stems from a primitive biconsonantal root la. As applied to the power (or powers, i.e. deities) which were thought to govern the universe, the term would literally mean “mighty (one)”, with plural <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) as “mighty (one)s”—that is to say, “God” or “gods”. The main difference between °¢l and the corresponding terms from Sumer and Egypt is that °¢l was commonly used as the name of the chief (Creator) Deity of the Semitic-speaking peoples. The range of usage does generally match that of “God” in English:

  • of Deity generally—”God”
  • to refer to any particular deity (or deities)—”god(s)”
  • as a name when addressing or referring to the Creator Deity—as “God”

There is reasonably well documented evidence for the chief Creator God being named °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) for both the Amorites in Mesopotamia and Canaanites in Syria-Palestine. As pronounced (vocalized) at the time (c. 2000-1400 B.C.) it would have been °Il(u). The most extensive information comes from the religious texts and myths uncovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria. For the most part, °E~l is depicted as an elderly, but vigorous, chieftain who rules and judges from his mountain (also envisioned as a domed tent)—a cosmic mountain filling the space between heaven and earth, but which could be represented (symbolically) in any important local mountain. This portrait relates especially to nomadic tent-dwellers, pastoral (herding) societies, in which °E~l was frequently referred to by the descriptive title “Bull”.

The principal role of °E~l was as Father—both of gods and human beings—or, more concretely, as Creator. This is seen in the famous episode in Genesis 14, in which Abraham encounters Melchi-Zedek, the (Canaanite) priest-king of Salem. There °E~l (using the compound name °E~l ±Elyôn, cf. below) is referred to with the formula-title “creator [hn@q)] of heaven and earth” (v. 19). The text clearly implies that Abraham and Melchi-Zedek are symathetic figures who share the same basic religious beliefs. Indeed, despite the notice in Gen 4:26, it is all but certain that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel—along with the early Israelites themselves—worshiped God by the name °E~l (i.e. “Mighty [One]”). This is amply confirmed by the traditions recorded in Genesis, most notably that in chapter 33 of the altar consecrated to “°E~l the God of Israel [°E~l °§lœhê Yi´ra¢l]” (v. 20). Moreover, personal and place names incorporating °E~l are relatively common in the early period, whereas corresponding names with Yah(weh) become prevalent only in the later Kingdom period. Most notably, of course, the name Israel itself (Yi´ra°el) includes °E~l, though the precise etymology remains uncertain—perhaps “°E~l is/has dominion” (but cp. the interpretation in Gen 32:28). Eventually, Yahweh came to be identified with °E~l, with the names being regarded as referring to the same (Creator) God. On the relationship between these two names, cf. the upcoming article on “Yahweh”.

There are three important compound °E~l-names which should be noted—°E~l ±Ôlam, °E~l ±Elyôn, and °E~l Šadday. It is significant that all three names—±Ôlam (“Ancient [One]”), ±Elyôn (“High[est One]”), and Šadday (“[He] of the Mountain”, “Mountain[ous One]”)—are attested in the Semitic (Canaanite) world as distinct deities, or as separate divine names. Thus there is some ambiguity as to how such compound names should be understood. There are three possible ways to read them (using the name with ±Ôlam [“Ancient”] as an example):

  • “The God (named) ‘Ancient [One]'”—that is, a deity with the name ±Ôlam. Such an interpretation would be rather unlikely within the context of Israelite monotheism.
  • °E~l the Ancient [One]”—i.e., as an epithet of °E~l
  • As a dual-name, which joins together two deities (or concepts of deity) into a single figure—°E~l-±Ôlam. In a monotheistic context, this would have to be understood something like “The Mighty One (who is also) the Ancient One”

The second option is to be preferred; that is, such compound names, as found in Israelite religious tradition, involve titles or epithets of the (one) Creator God named °E~l. For more on this subject, cf. Cross, pp. 46-60.

By the time of the New Testament, the specific use of the name °E~l had all but disappeared, in Hebrew and Aramaic usage, having been long since been replaced by Yahweh and its associated titles (e.g. °Adôn[ay], “Lord”). However, through the quotation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and their underlying traditions), vestiges of the name are preserved. Within the Infancy narratives in the Gospels, there are at least three names which preserve the element °E~l:

  • Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. The Greek  )Elisa/bet (Elisábet) is a transliteration of the Hebrew ub^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), “God [°E~l] is (my) oath [i.e. the one to swear by]”, or perhaps something like “God [°E~l] is (the one who) satisfies”. She will be discussed, together with Zechariah, in the note on Luke 1:5-6.
  • Gabriel, the heavenly Messenger (Angel) who appears to Zechariah and Mary in the Lukan narrative. Again, the Greek Gabrih/l (Gabri¢¡l) is a transliteration of the Hebrew—la@yr!b=G~ (Ga»rî°¢l), usually understood as “Strong/young (man) of God [°E~l]”, but perhaps better rendered “(My) God [°E~l] (is) Strong [i.e. a warrior]”. He will be discussed in the note on Luke 1:18-19ff.
  • Immanuel (Grk  )Emmanouh/l), the name preserved within the quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. The translation given in the Gospel more or less accurately reflects the meaning of the Hebrew la@uWnM*u! (±Imm¹nû°¢l), “God [°E~l] (is) with us”. Matt 1:23 will be discussed in the notes.

References marked “Cross” above (and throughout these notes) are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).