Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Who is Elohim?

In this essay, I focus on one of the great mysteries of the Bible: Why is the divine name Elohim in the plural form even though it refers to one God? Where did this name originate? And why is it used in a different way than the divine name Yahweh? These issues are already prevalent in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. I present a new solution to these intriguing questions. This is the seventh part in the series on the Book of Genesis.

Readers of my essays on the Book of Genesis would by now know that this book is full of surprises. There are indeed many more of these. In this essay, we focus on the use of the divine names in the book and ask what they say about God. When we open the Bible in the first chapter and start reading the story of creation, we find that one of the first words used is "God". We read: "In the beginning God created". The word used to refer to God is "Elohim". When we read the next chapter we find that a new name for God is suddenly introduced, namely Yahweh (YHWH)-Elohim. This name appears in the established Hebrew text (called the Masoretic text) in Genesis 2-3. Then, from chapter 4, this name of God is shortened to Yahweh.

Although the inattentive reader may at first think that the author is merely using these divine names randomly since they all refer to God, the careful student would wonder if the author's use of these names is not signalling something more significant. In fact, careful analysis seems to suggest that the names are used in a systematic way within certain contexts. As such the different names are used in different stories: the name of God used in the story of creation (in Gen. 1:1-2:3) is Elohim, whereas the name Yahweh is introduced in the context of the garden story (in Gen. 2:4-3:24). We also find that Elohim is typically associated with passages in which God is presented as aloof whereas Yahweh is used when God appears in anthropomorphic form (when he appears in human form or in dreams).

When we consider these names in more detail, something else catches our attention: the name Elohim is actually in the plural. Although it is used grammatically in the singular, that is, to refer to one God, it is also used in other contexts in the plural, for example, when referring to other gods (Ex. 20:3). Why would that be? Where did this name originate?

What is also interesting is that two other names for God are introduced in the Book of Genesis, both of which are presented in the singular form El, namely the Most High God (El-Elyon) and the Almighty God (El-Shaddai). Is there any particular reason why God is presented in these cases in the singular form El instead of Elohim? Both the names Most High God and Almighty God are associated with Abraham, who is introduced in the book as the forefather of the Israelites.

In Biblical Criticism, there is an old but established theory that the different names of God associated with different contexts originated from the author's use of different sources. As such the appearance of the names Elohim and Yahweh in the creation and garden stories respectively are taken as reflecting their origin in two very different sources (called the P(riestly) and Y(ahweh) sources). But is this the only and even the most sensible way to understand the use of these divine names?

I previously argued that the source theory is not well-founded [1]. In this essay, I argue that there is another more likely way to understand the use of these names. As such I do not only provide a simple explanation for the different use of the divine names Elohim and Yahweh; I also show how these names relate to the other names of God in the Book of Genesis. I also explain the name Elohim.

The Most High God

In the Book of Genesis the first names that are associated with God in the context of God's revelation to the forefathers of Israel, is Most High God (El-Elyon) and Almighty God (El-Shaddai). According to the author, these are the names under which God was worshipped by Abraham, the early forefather of the Israelites who is said to have come from the land of Sumer to Canaan. As such these names would go back long before the Book of Genesis itself was written.

I previously argued that the Book of Genesis incorporates information that does indeed go back long before the time of Moses who is traditionally regarded as the author of the book. I showed that the Mesopotamian material that is included in the "ancient history" (Gen. 1-11) does not show any Babylonian influence whatsoever from after the early Old-Babylonian period – that is, the time of Abraham – which means that it could not have originated from the time of the Babylonian exile as is generally accepted in Biblical Criticism circles [2]. I now argue that the divine names El-Elyon and El-Shaddai which are associated with Abraham also go back to that early stratum of Hebrew tradition. Although these names have been used throughout Israel's history, in my view they go back to exactly the context in which the author of the Book of Genesis places them.

We can first discuss the name Most High God (El-Elyon). This name has been used throughout Israel's history and became quite popular in the time after the exile when it was used in the Book of Daniel, the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some scholars, like Herbert Niehr, take this post-exilic usage as evidence that the appearance of that name in the Book of Genesis is also late. So, the question is: How do we distinguish between an early and late use of the name Most High God? There are various Biblical passages where this name is used in the context of an ancient way of thinking which had, for the most part, died out in post-exilic Israel. If the use of this divine name in the Book of Genesis is consistent with such ancient usage, we would have good reasons to think that the stories told in this book are indeed to be taken seriously.

One of the ancient contexts in which the divine name Most High God is used, is when the cosmic mountain of God is referred to. I previously discussed the ancient worldview in which this mountain takes centre stage and would not here go into all the details again [3]. This mountain was associated with the northern polar region of the starry heavens which is why it is said to be “in the sides of the north”. The great “gods”, who were called angels in later Israelite tradition, gathered on this mountain in council to discuss certain matters. The prophet Isaiah gave a beautiful description of this mountain of Most High God: “For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High” (Is. 14:13-14).

The reason why the Most High God was associated with this mountain, is that he was regarded as the father of the gods. As such the great gods convened around their “father” on his cosmic mountain. This is an extremely ancient concept which is nicely expressed in the old poem in Psalm 82. After mentioning the “congregation of the mighty” – that is, the council of the gods – the poet says: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High” (Ps. 82:6). Here the angels are called “gods” and are presented as “children of the Most High” which makes him their “father”. This also explains another ancient expression that is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the angels, namely “sons of God” (see Gen. 6:2; Job. 1: 6; 2: 1; 38: 7). This expression also appeared in the ancient Hebrew text that was used for the Greek translation of Bible (called the Septuagint) in the third century BC in Ps. 29:1 & 89:6 as well as Deut. 32:8, 43.

Another passage where the Most High God is presented as the father of the gods is in Deuteronomy 32:8. In this case, he is presented as the father of the gods who divided the heritage among his children, the “sons of God”. As such, they were appointed as rulers of the various nations. We read: “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of God”. Although the Masoretic text has “children of Israel” instead of “sons of God”, an old fragment found among the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the Septuagint reading which has “sons of God” as correct.

In the Book of Genesis, we find that Abraham worshipped this God after he returned from his victory over the Elamites (Gen. 14:18-22). The one who served as Abraham's priest on this occasion was Melchizedek who is presented as the priest-king of the Most High God who was worshipped at Salem – which refers to the ancient Amorite city of Jerusalem. We should not read this story apart from the one where God told Abraham many years later to go to the land Moriah where he had to bring a sacrifice at the “mountain of the Lord” (Gen. 22:2, 14). According to Israelite tradition, this mountain was indeed the one in Salem where Melchizedek was priest-king (2 Ch. 3:1). It makes sense that Abraham would visit this mountain to bring homage to the God whom he previously thanked and worshipped for the victory over the Elamites.

Although the author of the Book of Genesis calls this mountain by its later name, namely “the mountain of the Lord (Yahweh)”, the name Yahweh was not known in that early period (see below). This is clearly a case where the author or maybe some later editor used Yahweh as the equivalent for the God who was worshipped at that mountain at that early period. In this regard, he actually mentions that he is using contemporary language when he says: “as it is said to this day” (Gen. 22:14). The ancient context suggests that the God who was worshipped at this mountain was the Most High God.

The story of Abraham and Melchizedek shows that this God was also worshipped outside Abraham's circle and it seems that Semites came from all over the ancient country of Canaan to worship the Most High God on this holy mountain in Salem. This is very much in line with the ancient Semitic practice of worshipping El as the father of the gods on some local holy mountain as is also attested in the Ugarit texts regarding his worship further north in ancient Phoenicia in the fourteenth century BC. The local and broader context of the story in the Book of Genesis strongly suggests that the worship of the Most High God mentioned in the Book of Genesis is not a late invention but based on a very old Hebrew tradition.

Michelangelo Sistine Chapel God
Almighty God

This brings us to the other name of God that is associated with Abraham, namely Almighty God (El-Shaddai). This name is first introduced in Genesis 17:1 where the God who has called Abraham in his original homeland Sumer introduced himself as such: “I am the Almighty God, walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly”. This name appears six times in the Book of Genesis and the context shows that he was the ancestral God of Abraham's family (Gen. 17: 1; 28: 3; 35: 11; 43: 14; 48: 3; Ex. 6: 3 etc.). As such, Almighty God is primarily concerned with Abraham's family and he enters into a covenant with him and his descendants.

Later in the Book of Genesis, we read explicitly that the Almighty God (El-Shaddai) was the “God of thy father” (Gen. 49:25). This is an ancient expression which is also attested elsewhere in the ancient world from which Abraham came in the same period in which the Bible places him. This name “God of your/their fathers” is repeated when God appears to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3-4). Now God reveals to Moses that his real name is Yahweh (YHWH). God, however, also mentions that he did not reveal himself in this way to the patriarchs; rather, he revealed himself as Almighty God to them: “And God spoke to Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD (Yahweh): And I appeared to Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of Almighty God, but by my name Yahweh was I not known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).

According to this passage, the forefathers of Israel knew God as Almighty God (El-Shaddai) and not as Yahweh. The name Yahweh was for the very first time revealed to Moses. Also, according to this passage, the name Yahweh was given to the God who was previously known as Almighty God, who was the “God of your fathers”. As such Almighty God, the ancestral god of the forefathers of Israel now became known as “Yahweh God of your fathers” which refers to the God of the nation of Israel. As such he is also called “Yahweh God of the Hebrews” (Ex. 7:16) and “Yahweh God of Israel” (Ex. 5:1). We now understand why Yahweh is often presented in anthropomorphic form – he is the one who has throughout Israel's history appeared to them as their ancestral family God. According to the Book of Genesis, this God was concerned with humans from the beginning and he revealed himself to them already in the Garden of Eden – long before his calling of Abraham (Gen. 2-3).

What is interesting about the Almighty God is that he is depicted in the Book of Genesis as distinct from the Most High God. Although Abraham worshipped God in both these forms, the context in which they are worshipped is very different. The Most High God was worshipped on the mountain of God in Salem, whereas the Almighty God was worshipped as the ancestral God of Abraham and the fathers, who introduced himself as Yahweh and became the God of Israel in the time of Moses. The Most High God was worshipped at some local mountain whereas the Almighty God was not worshipped as such before he became associated with Mount Horeb in the Sinai desert.

We have also seen that the Most High God was worshipped as the father of the gods. We never find that this is said of the Almighty God or even Yahweh. In fact, the Almighty God (Yahweh) is depicted as a great warrior-king. Already in Jacob's blessing of his sons is he depicted as a great warrior-God (Gen. 49: 23-25). In the song about Israel's deliverance from Egypt, he is worshipped as “my father's God” who is a great warrior-king who “reigns for ever and ever” (Ex. 15:18; see Deut. 33:5). We read: “Who is like unto thee, O Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11). We even read in the Psalms: “For Yahweh is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:6). As such Yahweh is presented as the one who sits as king in the council of the gathered gods (1 Ki. 22:19; Ps. 82:1; 89:7-8).

One might think that the difference between the roles of the Most High God as the father of the gods and Yahweh (Almighty God) as the king of the gods is no big deal and that God merely fulfilled both roles. In the ancient context in which these concepts developed there was an enormous difference between these roles. We find, for example, in the Ugarit texts that El was the father of the gods and that other gods competed for the position of king over the gods (see note 13 in my discussion in [3]). Since Israel came into being in the context of that world, it would be very strange indeed if these roles were originally fulfilled by one divine entity.

The fact that the Most High God and the Almighty God – who is said to have taken the name Yahweh – is depicted so very differently in the Book of Genesis also suggests they have originally been worshipped apart even though they were later worshipped as one Godly being. Although they might have been regarded as two manifestations of the God El who shared the same name (El) and therefore the same Being there cannot be any doubt that they would also have been regarded as two entities who were worshipped in different contexts.

The origin of the name Yahweh-Elohim

We can now study the expression “God of your father” more carefully. When this expression is first introduced in the Book of Genesis (in Gen. 49:25) the word God is used in the singular (as El) in accordance with its reference to Almighty God (El-Shaddai) which always appears in the singular form. Shortly thereafter, however, in the same book, the word for God is given as Elohim in the very same expression, namely as “God (Elohim) of your father” (Gen. 50:17). This is also the manner in which this expression is given when it is combined with the name Yahweh in the Book of Exodus: “Yahweh God (Elohim) of your father/s” (Ex. 3:15). When this expression is adapted to express the development from a patriarchal family to the nation of Israel, the name of God is given as Elohim: “Yahweh God (Elohim) of Israel” (Ex. 5:1).

The question is: Why was the name of God changed from El to Elohim, from a singular form to one that includes a multiplicity? My suggestion is that this has to do with the move from the early worship of Almighty God by the patriarchal family to that of Yahweh by the people of Israel. As such this change would be closely associated with the worship of God at Mount Horeb in the Sinai where the name Yahweh was revealed to Moses.

The interesting thing about God's revelation of himself to Moses once Israel reached Mount Horeb is that the name Yahweh is shared by two distinct entities! On the one hand, there is the “angel of the Lord” which would be God appearing in human form (as an angel). This is the form in which Almighty God appeared to Abraham and the fathers (see Gen. 16:11-13; 18:2, 22; 19:1; 22:11, 15 etc.). This is also how he appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2-4). This is the form in which God led Israel out of Egypt and thereafter appeared in the pillar of fire which went before Israel (Ex. 14:19, 24). This is the form in which he appeared to Israel on Mount Horeb when the covenant between God and the people of Israel was concluded (Ex. 24:10). There cannot be any doubt that according to the Books of Genesis and Exodus both Abraham and Moses took this angel as God himself and that he is often called Yahweh by the author.

On the other hand, we read that God makes a very definite distinction between himself and the “angel of the Lord”, saying at the same time that they both share the name Yahweh! While Moses was on the mountain, God said to him regarding their future travel through the desert and their eventual entrance into Canaan: “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak, then…” (Ex. 23:20-22). The last sentence in the quotation is also very important. God says that Israel should obey him because God speaks through him. This is consistent with the fact that the angel of the Lord always embodies the word of God (Gen. 15:1; 1 Sam. 3:21 etc.).

Clearly, the Being who revealed himself to Moses on Mount Horeb involves (at least) two entities. From the quoted passage it seems that the one divine entity has some kind of higher authority over the one who appeared in the form of an angel. This might imply that he was the father of the gods who was worshipped under the name of the Most High God in that early period. I have shown that the Most High God was associated with the cosmic mountain of God (Is. 14:14) of which Mount Horeb was a local representation (as was the holy mountain in Salem where Abraham brought a sacrifice). One might think that this God was worshipped on Mount Horeb by Semites even before the time of Moses. As such we read that Jethro, Moses's father-in-law, who was “the priest of Midian”, actually brought offerings to God (Elohim) when Israel passed there on their way to Mount Horeb (Ex. 18:1, 12). This may imply that he was a priest of the god El who was associated with the high mountain near his residence (Mount Horeb).

In this reading, the multiplicity in the Being of God became manifest in the name Elohim which includes two distinct forms of El who were previously known as Most High God (El-Elyon) and Almighty God (El-Shaddai) [4]. Although both share the name Yahweh (since they belong to the same “Being” – as the name “I am” is translated in the Septuagint in Ex. 3), in the context of God's revelation this name (Yahweh) was especially associated with God's manifestation as the ancestral God of Israel. As such we read that the name Yahweh was given to the God who was previously known as Almighty God (Ex. 6:2-3). This is the God who appeared in human or angel form throughout Israel's history.

As such the name “Yahweh God (Elohim) of your father” (Ex. 3:15) or “Yahweh God (Elohim) of Israel” (Ex. 5:1) refers to God's manifestation in human (i.e. angel) form even though he is a multiplicity in his being (who was worshiped in both El-forms by Abraham). Throughout the Bible the name Yahweh Elohim (which is sometimes shortened to this basic form - see Gen. 2-3; Ex. 9:30) is consistently used to refer to the ancestral God of Israel (in the Book of Genesis, see for example ch. 9:26; 24:12; 28:13). The author of the Book of Genesis also uses the name Yahweh Elohim when he first introduces God in his human manifestation in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2-3; see 3:8). The fact that he uses this name and not merely Yahweh, signifies that he wanted to accentuate that even at that early stage God's goal was to choose a people for himself.

We can now come back to the distinction between the Most High God who was regarded as the father of the gods and Yahweh the ancestral God of Israel. We have seen that the divine entity who spoke to Moses on Mount Horeb seems to have had some kind of authority over the other divine entity who appeared as an angel throughout Israel's history and I suggested that he might be the father of the gods. As the father of the gods the Most High God would have had some kind of special authority over all the other gods. But Yahweh was not merely another god. He shared in the being of God.

There is a passage that throws light on this issue, namely Deuteronomy 32:8-9 which I already mentioned above. Here the Most High God is depicted as the father of the gods who divided the nations among the sons of God as their heritage. In this case, it is said that Yahweh received the portion set aside for the first-born son. Among all the nations the people of Israel was this choice portion. This would make Yahweh the firstborn son of the Most High God – and set him apart from all the other “sons of God” who do not share in God's being (this expression merely refers to heavenly beings in general).

In this remarkable passage we read: “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of God. For Yahweh's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance” (Deut. 32:8-9). It has been suggested that Yahweh has merely set Israel apart for himself but that goes against the idea of “inheritance”.

Since we know that the Most High God was indeed regarded as the “father of the gods” (Ps. 82:6) this passage makes by far the most sense if we understand it such that he gave the people of Israel as a special portion to Yahweh as his “firstborn” son. This also makes the most sense in the context of the clear distinction that is made in the early tradition about Abraham between the worship of the Most High God and the Almighty God who was later called Yahweh and who is throughout the Books of Genesis and Exodus presented as the ancestral God of Israel [5, 6].

Yahweh to become king of all the earth

We can now reread the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis in the light of this discussion. There is clearly no need to call upon various sources that the author supposedly used to explain the appearance of the names of God in these passages or anywhere else in the Pentateuch [7]. When God is introduced in the creation story as Elohim, the author merely wanted to present him as existing in this form before all else was created. This is the name that reflects his Being – which should be regarded as a multiplicity.

Already in the second verse of the first chapter is the Spirit of God introduced as moving upon the primal waters from which our world was created. Then Yahweh Elohim is introduced in the context of the garden story as one of the Elohim who had a special interest in humans but not before it is stated that all was created through him (Gen. 2:4). This makes sense when we consider that Yahweh Elohim is always throughout the Bible depicted as the “Word of God” [8]. When God created the cosmos through his word, he created it through Yahweh Elohim.

The author of the Book of Genesis seems to accentuate the multiplicity in the name Elohim in a manner that is clearly very old, namely by using it with the pronoun “us” instead of “I”. This is the only place in the Bible where we find this usage where it appears three times in the ancient history (Gen. 1: 26; 3: 22; 11:7). We read: “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Although we find in the latter two of these passages that Yahweh Elohim (or Yahweh) also speaks in this manner, we should understand this in the context of the multiplicity of Elohim.

In one of these other two places (in Gen. 3:22), we find that the Septuagint has a different reading – the consistent use of Yahweh Elohim is interrupted with the use of Elohim when God speaks as “us”. This supports the idea that the name Elohim was associated with the “us” form. Another interesting feature of the Septuagint is that the divine name Yahweh Elohim does not appear only in the garden story; it appears throughout the ancient history and even sporadically thereafter in the Book of Genesis. This reading implies that the garden story should not be regarded on this particular feature as being uniquely taken from another source.

The multiplicity in the name of God is also manifested in the reference to two distinct divine entities that we find in various passages throughout the Bible. Although we find in later times that the name Most High God is sometimes used as a mere epithet of Yahweh (Ps. 47:2), the division of the roles of father and king of the gods did not disappear. In some of the passages where two such divine entities are distinguished, the one is clearly presented as the father and the other as the one who is destined to become king over all the gods of the earth.

We find already in the Book of Genesis that two Yahweh's are distinguished. In the passage about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we read: “Then Yahweh rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Yahweh out of heaven” (Gen. 19:24). There are also two passages in the Psalms where a duality in the Being of God is accentuated. In Ps. 45:6, 7 we read how God anointed another divine entity, who is also called God, as king: “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the scepter of thy kingdom is a right scepter. Thou lovest righteousness, and hate wickedness: therefore God, thy God hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows” (especially in the Septuagint reading). One may take this as referring to that Yahweh who is anointed as king over the gods (no human king can rule forever!).

The other passage is in Ps. 110:1, 4 where we read: “Yahweh said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool… Yahweh has sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. The Lord is at thy right hand; He shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the nations”. Although it has been suggested that the one who sits on the right hand of Yahweh is not the Lord since the expression "my Lord" is used and not "the Lord", we do find that the Angel of Yahweh is sometimes called "my Lord" (Joshua 5:14; Judges 6:13). In fact, in verse 4 the one on the right hand is indeed called "The Lord". Yahweh will destroy the enemy nations in his wrath and judge them (Ps. 110:5-6). The interesting thing about this passage is that it suggests that there are certain enemies who stand in the way of God becoming king over all the nations (i.e. who are worshipped by them).

In the Prophet Zechariah, this divine duality is depicted in the context of the council of the gods where Satan also appeared (see also Job 1:6; 2:1). In this case, we read that the one who leads the proceedings is called the “angel of Yahweh” as well as Yahweh (Zec. 3:1, 2). This is not strange since we have seen that Yahweh is also elsewhere depicted in this way, namely as the king who leads the council of the gods (1 Ki. 22:19; Ps. 82:1; 89:7-8). In this case, Satan appears as the adversary in the council (as he also does in a similar passage in the Book of Job; Job 1:6; 2:1). This explains why Yahweh's authority has not yet been established over all the gods (see Ps. 110). In this case, Yahweh calls upon another Yahweh to rebuke the Satan: “And Yahweh said unto Satan, Yahweh rebuke thee, O Satan” (Zec. 3:2). The reason why the other Yahweh would have the authority to rebuke Satan is that he is the father of the gods who have such power.

The Prophet Zechariah also tells how it would happen that Yahweh would become king over all the nations of the earth – in accordance with the prophecy in Psalm 110. In this case, we read that he would become king after a great battle during which he would appear on the mount of olives: “Behold, the day of Yahweh cometh… For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle… Then shall Yahweh go forth, and fight against those nations as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of olives, which is before Jerusalem… And Yahweh shall be king over all the earth” (Zec. 14:1-9). This depiction of Yahweh as warrior-king goes back to the early poem about the exodus from Egypt (Ex. 15).

The last passage is in the Book of Daniel. Here we find exactly the same depiction as in the above passages, namely of two divine entities, with the one who has the form of a man receiving kingship from the other, who is depicted as an old man who clearly represents the father of the gods. The one in human form – who is called “Son of man” – comes before the Ancient of Days, who sits on his glorious throne in heavenly context, and receives eternal kingship over all the earth from him.

We read: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13, 14).

Since this depiction is given in the context of a prophecy, the name “Son of man” might imply that he would take a human form different from his previous mere human appearance (as an angel). This prophecy is clearly messianic, as are the others that I discussed above (Ps. 45:6, 7; 110:1). In the New Testament, we read that Jesus applies this expression to his incarnation as a human and casts this prophecy in the context of his Second Coming (Matt. 24:30).

The most important observation that we can make of all these passages in which God is depicted as a Being consisting of a father and his son [9], is not only that this is part of a continuous Israelite tradition which went back centuries, but also that it consistently shows that the two roles of father of the gods and king over the gods were never conflated. In the oldest extra-Biblical traditions in Canaan and Mesopotamia, these roles were always clearly distinguished from each other; the same is true of the Biblical tradition! Whereas Baal/Marduk became king over the council of the gods in the worship of the surrounding nations (see [3]), Israel always worshipped Yahweh as the rightful king and the prophets proclaimed that he would one day become king over all the gods.


When one studies the names of God in the Book of Genesis and the rest of the Bible, it so often happens that one's judgment is clouded by the religious or scholarly tradition from which you come. It is not easy to consider the text on its own merit. Although Biblical Criticism has brought various criticisms in their arguments as to why the Book of Genesis should be regarded as a late literary work, these do not stand when they are subjected to real scrutiny. Scholars merely believe that because it has been deeply ingrained into their paradigm of thinking when they were taught those things at university. Although the source theory of the Pentateuch might have made sense to scholars a hundred years ago, this cannot be the case today.

I present an alternative interpretation which does not merely provide a sensible explanation for the names of God as well as the way in which they are used in different contexts; I also show that this reading is consistent with Semitic (and early Sumerian) practice in the ancient world from which the Bible originated. When the distinction between the roles of the father of the gods and king over the gods is dropped in our conception of God, we end up with an idea that is totally foreign to the Bible and the world from which it originated. Although there developed a later view about God in Jewish circles in reaction against the Christian view in which God is regarded as three divine persons who include a father and a son, there cannot be any doubt that this view was well-established in the third century BC when the Septuagint was translated.

In my view, there is no good reason to doubt that the Most High God and the ancestral God of Israel were originally worshipped in two very different contexts which were only later brought together. As such the oldest traditions about the Most High God present him as the father of the gods whereas Yahweh as the ancestral God of Israel was worshipped as king in the council of the gods. This duality in the roles regarding the council of the gods is attested in both ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia and has been preserved throughout Israel's history until we read in the vision in the Book of Daniel that the “Son of man” appeared before the Ancient of days sitting on his glorious throne to receive eternal kingship over all the gods. Although I did not discuss that, there cannot be any doubt that Jesus as the son of the Most High God (Luk. 1:32) fits the Biblical picture of Yahweh as “Son of man” perfectly.

[4] The name Elohim probably developed from the plural of Eloah. In my view, this variant form of El was used during the time of Moses in the Sinai region where Moses is said to have lived for 40 years. Although the word is found rather sparsely in the Bible in its ancient use (instead of post-exilic use), it is interesting that we find it in the very old "Song of Moses" (see Deut. 32:15, 17). In later times the word Eloah was associated with the country of Teman (Edom). In the Book of Job, it is predominantly used by his friend Eliphaz who came from that region. Teman means "south" and might have included vast areas towards the south in earlier times before it became associated with an area in Edom.
[5] The Biblical tradition of El-Elyon as the father of the gods and Yahweh as king of the Gods who were considered to be a father and son who share in the divine Being shows a close correspondence with the ancient Sumerian tradition in the country of Abraham's origin. In that case, the father of the gods was called An, whose name means “exalted, most high”. The elevated position of this god can be seen in the way in which his name was written. All the names of the gods were combined with the sign for “god” which showed the reader that a god is spoken of (called a determinative). In the case of An, however, no such sign appears behind his name; his name is also the sign for god. He was “God”, the elevated one above all other gods. According to the earliest literary tradition from Fara (about 2500 BC) as well as later Sumerian tradition, the worship of this God was extremely old. Since this sign was read by the Semites as "el", we may accept that the name An itself was understood as the god El who was incorporated in the Sumerian pantheon as the father of the gods.
The son of An was the god Enlil who was also the king of the gods in the council of the gods. Sumerian scholars have proposed that this name originated from a duplication of the name El, i.e. that the symbol for El was accompanied by the symbol for god (el) (Jacobsen 1977:115; Michalowski 1996:242). There are various problems with this view. Although Enlil was indeed a Semitic god, he was worshipped as king of the gods which was very much distinct from El's traditional role as the father of the gods. The other problem is that El.El immediately also presents a duplication of the name El.
The Sumerians would have had theological speculations about the meaning of this name which implies a duplication of the God El into another God El. One might suggest that they would have thought that the God El, the father of the gods, duplicated himself to produce another God who shared his divine being, namely El.El (Enlil) who became the king of the gods. His kingship should be understood in the long Semitic (and Sumerian) tradition where this title was associated with warrior-kings. As king, he had the title "Lord" and was the one who pronounced the decision (word) of the council of the gods. As powerful ruler of heaven and earth he was called the "Mighty One" (Jacobsen 1976:101; see Gen. 49:24; Deut. 10:17). At this point, one cannot but see the close correspondence with the later Israelite tradition which would then constitute a continuation of this early Semitic tradition. 
What I am suggesting is that the relation between the Most High God (El-Elyon) and the Almighty God (El-Shaddai) as father and son goes back long before the time of Abraham in Semitic tradition – who were incorporated into Sumerian tradition as An and Enlil (as such these gods developed a particular Sumerian character). It may not be without reason that the author of the Book of Genesis calls the God of Shem by the name Yahweh Elohim, i.e. "Blessed be Yahweh Elohim of Shem" (Gen. 9:26). If we take the Book of Genesis as incorporating really old traditions about the patriarchs (as I do), then this may signify that El, the ancestral God of Abraham's family, was already worshipped by early Semites as a distinct entity from El, the father of the gods. 
It is interesting to hear Bileam, who did not participate in the Israelite tradition going back to mount Sinai, referring to both of El-Elyon and El-Shaddai in one proverb: “He hath said, which heard the words of God (El), and knew the knowledge of the Most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:16; see also Ps. 91:1). This parallelism is similar to one from Sumerian poetry in which the fall of Ur is bemoaned: “In truth, I shed my tears in front of An. In truth, myself I mourned in front of Enlil” (Mullen 1980: 257).
Shortly after the time of Abraham, the god Marduk usurped the role of king of the gods to become ruler of the Babylonian gods. After that time the character of Enlil was slandered in Babylonia. There is, for example, the story of his banishment to the Western mountains in which he is depicted as having sexual relations with the goddess Ninlil. This story was clearly taken from the opposing Enki milieu as the scholar Michalowski (1996) has shown (Enki was the father of Marduk). Marduk was later worshipped by the Canaanites as Baal [3]. In both the Babylonian and Canaanite traditions he is presented as a rebel who led an insurrection against the king of the gods to become king himself. As such his role as king of the gods was never accepted in Israel. Instead, this rebel-leader in the council of the gods was called Satan, which means “adversary”, in the Biblical tradition. The figure of Satan is clearly very old and cannot be understood apart from the ancient concept of the council of the gods [3].
Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1976. The Treasures of Darkness. New Haven: Yale University.
Jacobsen, Thorkild. 1977. Inuma Iiu awilum, in Maria de Jong Ellis (ed.). Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts & Science Vol xix. Hamden: Archon Books.
Michalowski, Piotr. 1996. The Unbearable Lightness of Enlil, in J. Prosecky (ed.). Intellectual Life of the Ancient Near East, papers presented 43e Rencontre assyriologique Internationale.
Mullen, E. Theodore. 1980. The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature. Chico (California): Scholars Press.
[6] The New Testament presents us with exactly the same picture. We read that Jesus was born as “Son of the Most High” which clearly agrees with Yahweh as the only-begotten son of the Most High God (Deut. 32:8, 9; Luk. 1:32). Jesus proclaimed Himself to be Yahweh, the Son of the Father, who came forth from his being (see Joh. 8:38, 42, 58). He identified himself with the “Son of man” who will come with the clouds of heaven and stand next to the Ancient of days (Matt. 24:30 etc.). As such he says that the Son has a position above the angels before the father (Mark 13:32). He also identifies himself with the Lord on the right hand of Yahweh in Psalm 110:1 (Mark. 12:35-37) and equates this figure with the Son of man who stands next to God in Daniel 7 (Matt. 26:64). In both these prophecies God is said to give kingship to this being next to him which is also what the angel Gabriel said when he announced Jesus' birth, namely that God would give him the throne of his father David (see Ps. 45:6, 7; 110:1; Dan. 7:13, 14).
[7] We do find that the author of the Book of Genesis mentions various “(books of) the generations of” which seem to refer to material that he received from the fathers (Gen. 2:4a; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12, 19; 36:1,9; 37:2). One of these books begins with the garden story. This implies that this story was indeed taken from such an early source which may have had some distinct features different from other such “books”. This is, however, not the kind of sources that are spoken of in Biblical Criticism.
[8] In my view the author of the Gospel of St. John got his view regarding Jesus as the Word of God through whom God had created all things from Gen. 2:4. Once we understand that Yahweh Elohim is a distinct entity (person) in the Being of God (Elohim) who embodied the Word of God, the beginning of this gospel makes absolute sense: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh. 1:1-3).
[9] Although I do not include the Spirit of God in the discussion (in this essay I am only concerned with the two El-forms of God), it is nonetheless true that the divine Spirit is mentioned throughout Biblical history. He was present at the time of creation when he moved upon the face of the waters. In that case, we find God (Elohim), Yahweh as well as the Spirit of God mentioned (Gen. 1:1; 1:2; 2:4). In later Hebrew history, the Spirit of God was especially closely associated with the prophetic tradition - the prophets were moved by the divine Spirit when they prophesied (Micah 3:6 etc.). The appearance of God as Yahweh (in the form of an angel) and God's Spirit inspiring the prophets are clearly two complementary manifestations of God (Elohim) within the human sphere. In Isaiah, the Spirit of God is described in his seven-fold nature (Is. 11:2). Later, in the Book of Revelation, we again find God (depicted as the father figure on the throne), Jesus (the Lamb of God) as well as the seven-fold Spirit of God (represented by seven flames) together in heaven (Rev. 4:3, 5, 6).

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics; MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

Read also the other parts of the series on the Book of Genesis:
Intro: The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis

If readers find the article interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars. 


  1. Dr McLoud, thank you, that was fascinating. Apart from the reference to God's Spirit in Gen 1, how does the Holy Spirit fit into this union as you describe here? I understand that Judaism interprets the Spirit of God as the work-force of God rather than a separate person. In Christianity, the Spirit is seen as a third Person in addition to the two entities as you describe here. What is your take on this?


  2. Hi Johan. Thanks for commenting. Throughout the Bible the Holy Spirit is indeed somewhat on the background. If we focus on the passage that I discussed it seems that the author gave each of the divine entities (persons) a place in his exposition. Although the HS is accentuated throughout the OT especially within the context of prophetic ministry, there are obviously various ways to interpret the text. I think one can make a strong case for the Christian view. In my view the NT authors used a conception of the HS that was prevalent in Jewish circles - although the doctrine about the HS might have been quite fluid at that time. We should not read Jewish thought from the pre-Christian period through the lens of post-Christian Judaism - it seems that Jewish scholars even went so far as to make some small but important changes to the manuscript of the OT at Jamnia during the end of the first century AD in reaction against the Christian view (see note 12 in the previous essay on this blog; various differences between the Septuagint and Masoretic texts might be viewed in this context). As such I accept the NT view that the HS is the third divine person.

  3. God bless you for this article !!!