“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).

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