Michael A Rizzotti
The oldest biblical divinity is that of God of the Father(s). With this essay we will summarize some of the appellations of God used in the Old Testament.
One of the oldest Semitic appellatives of God is ‘el.1 The designation has been widely used in ancient Israel, Babylonia, and Arabia. It is also found in the oldest names as a component of: Ishma-el, Bethu-el, and Isra-el. 2 The original meaning of the word ‘el is still uncertain, but a probable origin may stem from the root ‘lh, which conveys the sense of “to be strong and powerful”, “direction”, or even “a sphere of control”. We also find the root alongside the proper name of deities such as: El-Shaddai (God Almighty), El-Elyon (God Most High), and El-Roi (“El sees me”, “God Seeing”).3
Among the most appropriate epithets of El are “Mighty”, “Leader”, or “Governor”. Its most forceful significance was meant to stress an attribute of majesty, with the intent to inspire fear in the face of God’s “mighty” presence.
Another important feature in the Scriptures is the frequent use of the appellative El in connection with the patriarchs’ names. The “God of Abraham” for instance, is the “El of Abraham”, the “Fear of Isaac” is the “El of Isaac”, and the “Mighty One of Jacob” is the “El of Jacob”. The designation was also used to describe the “God of the fathers”; i.e. the “El of the Fathers”.4 This feature indicates a special relation between the deity and the individual leader. The God of the leader became, henceforth, the God of the family and of the tribe. As such it also established a tribal bond between the God and the group.
Gen. 33:18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddanaram; and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elo’he-Israel (that is God, the God of Israel).
Several divinities of the ancient Near East in the second millennium BC were, for the most part, assigned to a specific cultic place. The more stable kingdoms living during that period were constantly threatened by wandering nomadic tribes. War was an ongoing reality, especially among the emerging powers seeking to expand their dominion. The survival of the smaller semi-nomadic tribes depended on the initiative of their leader.
The pervasive use of “magic” in connection to their tribal “gods” was common as a way to inspire confidence, strength, and protection against rival enemies. The religious life of the group was closely intertwined into the nuclear social structure. Herdsmen, clans, and tribes, most of them semi-nomadic, were constantly in search of new ways to provide for their own subsistence and that of their flock in a harsh environment. The best fertile lands were already occupied by the powerful rulers of the city-states.5
The text of Genesis reveals that the worship of El among the early Hebrew migrant tribes had the same specific function of social cohesion and protection. Consequently, the random contact with other tribes and cultures brought about spontaneous opposition to rival cultic deities which endangered the integrity and cohesion of the group. This is especially the case of El and its opposition to Baal, the warrior storm-god, the King of the Gods.6
Another word commonly used for God in the Old Testament is ‘elohim.7 Etymologically it is connected to El. It is used mostly as an “abstract plural” or a “plural of intensity”. Elohim can best be translated into the Godhead. It is mostly used as a superlative to elevate the rank of the divinity above the pantheon of the other gods. This expression was utilized primarily in Babylonia and in pre-Israelite Palestine to express the unity of individual gods that combined the totality of the higher divine reality. The plural form became recognized as an expression of superiority. In that sense, the narrative uses the plural form of ‘elohim to glorify the God of Sinai as the supreme divinity, and to express the superiority of God -‘elohim- to other gods.
The name Elohim is also an appelation for God which is used to replace the name Yahweh. Among other epithets used in the Bible to replace the unspeakable name of God -YHWH- is Adonai, or the Lord.
El, in all likelihood, is linked etymologically to ilu, a widely popular high-god of ancient Mesopotamia and the most prominent deity in the Canaanite religion. El, which we have identified with the God worshiped by the fathers, was also a prevalent God in Canaan, what was commonly known as Palestine.8
Ex: 6.2 And God said to Moses, “I am the lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelt as sojourners.”
P, who wrote the quote above, makes it quite clear that the identity of the gods worshiped by the forefathers are not to be mistaken with Yahweh, who disclosed himself to Moses for the first time. In the text, Yahweh informs Moses that he was known by the forefathers as El Shaddai; i.e., the God Almighty. The account also reveals the whole new reality of Yahweh who links the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and finally to Moses.
Yahweh’s promise links his presence to the enduring existence of his people’s posterity; ie, the descendants. A promise which is revived again and again through the kings and prophets in whom Yahweh chooses to inspire his authority.
Ex. 3:14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, `I am has sent me to you.'”
In the quote above J links God’s name with the verb “to be”, or “to exist”.
I am who I am
The significance of the tautology ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, with the emphasis on the redundancy of the verb ehyeh, “to be”, is meant to enforce the idea of vitality and presence. The context in which God speaks, and to whom he speaks, implies an apperception of the divine presence which is linked with the promise made by God to the forefathers.10
The essence of the being of God is portrayed in terms of presence and of relationship. All the attributes are closely related to the twofold relationship between Yahweh and Moses and the realization of the promise to free the people from Egypt.11 The closeness is explained when God says to Moses, “But I will be with you”.12
When God tells Moses to go to the people and tell them that “I am has sent me to you”, he implies that when the hero utters the words “I am”, Moses will assume and ultimately embody God’s divine authority. Yahweh’s personal presence and existence is, shall we say, determined by Moses’ acquiescence of his mission. Yet it is the ongoing quality of the promise that is eternal, not God’s spokesmen. As such, the promise transcends Moses’ historicity.
Individuality is also stressed by the pronoun “I” which can only exist in the act of speaking to others or to oneself.13 Yet the first person singular indicates the presence of the image-less individuum vaguum. In the narrative the “I” exists -or stands out- as an individual being since God’s words are audible and comprehensible to the hero even though God’s reality is image-less. As God introduces himself, a distance is set between Yahweh and Moses. The alienation stems from the mystery of the distant promise that God had made to the forefathers. But as soon as Moses realizes the scope of his destiny, the hero finally understands the message and goal of the revelation. Then, the separation narrows. As Moses accepts God’s mission, he eventually identifies with the promise. More so when Yahweh reassures Moses that he will be with him and that his mouth will be God’s mouth. At the outset, Yahweh is wholly other than Moses yet he becomes one with him in his mission.
Although God forbids the use of any “graven images” to portray or to identify him, the text is full of metaphors to suggest that his identity is accessible to us:
Ex. 33:11 “Thus the lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”.
God here is depicted as a friend, and the intimacy of the relationship is further symbolized by its anthropomorphic and metaphorical nature.
Throughout the Bible, the narrative uses the anthropomorphic to reveal God.
Gen. 1:3 > God speaks
Gen. 1:26 > God created man in his image
Gen. 3:8 > God walks in the garden
Gen. 32:24 > God wrestles with Jacob
Exod. 15:8 > God has a nose
Deut. 11:12 > God has eyes
1 Sam. 8:21 > God has ears
Ps. 2:4 > God laughs
Isa. 42:14 > God pants and groans
We have seen in Genesis how God speaks to the world. He speaks to his prophets, to his people, and to the reader. This ability to communicate is essential in order for his will to be known.
God was present in the beginning. He was present with Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Moses. God is always present in his promise. Therefore, God transcends the personal relationship to encompass the people and their progeny in order that the promise be safeguarded.
The historical: Yahweh is the God of the Patriarchs, of Moses, of the anointed Kings, of the Prophets, and the priests etc…
The eternal: God’s promise to his people from which he chooses his spokesman
The main purpose of this chapter was to put in proper perspective the specific identity of the God of the Old Testament. As we have seen, God, in ancient Judaism, evolved from a more general Semitic designation of El into the more exclusive appellation of YHWH (Yahweh). Therefore, only the unspeakable YHWH is the holy one, and only He is the center of worship. A God vehemently opposed to any other god(s). He is the exclusive and ineffable religious reality of Israel.
1 The term Semitic is used here to represent the family of languages of which Hebrew, Aramaic, Ethiopic and ancient Assyrian are a part.
2 Ilumma-ila and Ibni-ilu, in Babylonia; IlL-awwas and Jasma`-ilu in Southern Arabia.
3 El-Shaddai (Gen. 17:1); El-Elyon (Gen. 14:18f); and El-Roi (Gen. 22:14).
4 El of Abraham (Gen. 31:53); El of Isaac (Gen. 31:42); El of Jacob (Gen. 49:24).
5 See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1952.
6 See M. Weber, Ibid., 154. Also Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, 1969, 180, Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, London, Oliver and Boyd, 1965, and Edmond Jacob, Old testament Theology, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1955, 56.
7 Gen.1: 26; 20:13; etc.
8 Ronald E. Clements, The God of Israel, Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1979, 64.
9 Torah, Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982, Ex. 3:14.
10 One interesting hypothesis on the origin of YHWH -called the tetragrammaton- relates to an extension of the prehistoric word hu rendered “He”, the god. Another similarity points to the Dervish cry Ya-hu which can be translated into “O He”. The original expression may have been Ya-huva, if the Arabic pronoun huwa is taken to mean “he”. It is possible that the name Ya-huva could have meant “O-He” also. Such an expression could easily have evolved into Yahu and finally Yahweh. It is also interesting to note the rhetorical character in the original use of the word. M. Buber, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 49f.
11 See Martin Buber, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 192-195.
12 Ex. 3:12.
13 See Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders’, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1988, 70f.