Excerpt from “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” by John Day

John Day is a professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Oxford. His 2002 book “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” provides an excellent guide to the relationship that YHWH held with other gods in ancient Israel. Of immediate interest in the relationship of YHWH to El that day outlines. He argues that the two were originally understood as distinct deities, and that only later were they amalgamated into one God. Day presupposes the JEPD, which seems (from my reading) to still be the dominate interpretive framework of OT scholars. Day also makes a few comments about the “absolute monotheism” of later centuries, but does not discuss this concept further (it isn’t the subject of his book). That subject, obviously, of interest to LDS readers.

Below I have reproduced interesting excerpts from the first chapter of that book. I place them here for study and for easy future access.

Note: The excerpts contain many footnotes, which I did not reproduce. Also, the italicized portions are original, but the bolded portions are my own. To read the original online visit here.

Chapter 1


Were Yahweh and El originally the same Deity or not?

(pg. 13)

What was the relationship between Yahweh and the Canaanite god El? In the Old Testament Yahweh is frequently called El. The question is raised whether Yahweh was a form of the god El from the beginning or whether they were separate deities who only became equated later. The Old Testament itself indicates some sense of discontinuity as well as continuity, in that both the E and P sources imply that the patriarchs did not know the name Yahweh and that this was first revealed to Moses (Exo.3.13-15, E; 6.2-3, P), in contrast to the J source, where the name Yahweh was already known in primaeval times (Gen. 4.26). The P source specifically states that the patriarchs had previously known God under the name El-Shaddai (Exod. 6.3).

                In the nineteenth century J. Wellhausen believed Yahweh to be the same as El, and more recently this has been particularly argued by F.M. Cross and J.C. de Moor. However, the following arguments may be brought against this. First, in the Ugaritic texts the god El is revealed to be wholly benevolent in nature, whereas Yahweh has a fierce as well as a kind side. Secondly, as T.N.D. Mettinger has rightly emphasized, the earliest evidence, such as that found in Judg. 5.4-5, associates Yahweh with the storm, which was not something with which El was connected at all. Rather, this is reminiscent of Baal. Thirdly, as for F.M. Cross’s view that Yahweh was originally a part of El’s cultic title, ‘El who creates hosts’ (‘il du yahwi saba’ ot), this is pure speculation. The formula in question is nowhere attested, whether inside or outside the Bible. Cross’s reasons for thinking that yhwh sb’t cannot simply mean ‘Lord of hosts’, namely, that a proper name should not appear in the construct, is incorrect. Further, hyh (hwh) is not attested in Hebrew in the hiphil (’cause to be’, ‘create’), though this is the case in Aramaic and Syriac. Yahweh in any case more likely means ‘he is’ (qal) rather than ‘he causes to be/creates’ (hiphil): to suppose otherwise requires emendation of the Hebrew text in Exod. 3.14 (‘ehyeh, ‘I am’), which explains the name Yahweh. I conclude, therefore, that El and Yahweh were originally distinct deities that became amalgamated. This view was held as long ago as F.K. Movers, and has been argued since by scholars such as O. Eissfeldt and T.N.D. Mettinger.

                (pg. 22)

                In the Old Testament there appears the concept of Yahweh’s having a heavenly court, the sons of God. They are referred to variously as the ‘sons of God’ (bene ha ‘elohim, Gen 6.2, 4; Job 1.6, 2.2; or bene ‘elohim, Job 38.7), the ‘sons of gods’ (bene ‘elim, Pss. 29.1, 89.7 [ET 6]) or the ‘sons of the Most High’ (bene ‘elyon, Ps. 82.6). It is also generally agreed that we should read ‘sons of God’ (bene ‘elohim) for ‘sons of Israel’ in Deut. 32.8 (see below).

                There are further numerous places where the heavenly court is referred to without specific use of the expressions ‘sons of God(s)’ or ‘sons of the Most High’. Thus, the heavenly court is mentioned in connection with the first human(s) (Gen 1.26, 3.22; Job 15.7-8) or elsewhere in the primaeval history (Gen. 11.7; cf. Gen 6.2 above), and in the context of the divine call or commission to prophecy (1 Kgs 22.19-22; Isa 40.3,6; Jer. 23.18, 22; cf. Amos 3.7). We also find it referred to in connection with the guardian gods or angels of the nations (Isa.24.21; Ps. 82.1; Ecclus 17.17; Jub. 15.31-32; cf. Deut 32.8 and Ps. 82.6 above; implied in Dan 10.13, 20; 12.1). Apart from the isolated references to the divine assembly on the sacred mountain in Isa 14.13 and to personified Wisdom in the divine assembly in Ecclus 24.2, the other references to the heavenly court are more general (Zech. 1.10-11, 3.7, 14.5; Ps. 89.6-8 [ET 17], 7.10, 21, 25, 27, 8.10-13; cf. Job 1.6, 2.2, 38.7 and Pss. 29.1, 89.7 [ET 6] above). Just as an earthly king is supported by a body of courtiers, so Yahweh has a heavenly court. Originally, these were gods, but as monotheism became absolute, so these were demoted to the status of angels.

It is in connection with the Canaanite god El and his pantheon of gods, known as the ‘sons of El’, that a direct relationship with the Old Testament is to be found. That this is certain can be established from the fact that both were seventy in number.  At Ugarit we read in the Baal myth of ‘the seventy sons of Asherah (Athirat)’ (sb’m. bn. ‘atrt, KTU 1.4. VI.46). Since  Asherah was El’s consort, this therefore implies that El’s sons were seventy in number. Now Deut. 32.8, which is clearly dependent on this concept, declares, ‘When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God’. The reading ‘sons of God’ (bene ‘elohim) has the support of the Qumran fragment, 4QDeut, the LXX, Symmachus, Old Latin and the Syro-Hexaplaric manuscript, Camb. Or. 929. This is clearly the original reading, to be preferred to the MT’s ‘sons of Israel’ (bene yisra’el), which must have arisen as a deliberate alteration on the part of a scribe who did not approve of the polytheistic overtones of the phrase ‘sons of God’. Interestingly, it is known that the Jews believed there to be seventy nations on earth, so that the sons of God were accordingly also seventy in number. This emerges from the table of the nations in Genesis 10, where there are seventy nations, and from the later Jewish apocalyptic concept according to which there were seventy guardian angels of the nations (Targum Pseudo-Jonathon on Deut 32.8; 1 En. 89.59-77, 90.22-27). This view, which I have defended previously, seems eminently reasonable.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the Old Testament never refers to the heavenly court as ‘the sons of Yahweh’. As we have seen above, apart from one instance of bene ‘elyon, we always find the ‘sons of God’, with words for God containing the letter s ‘l (bene ha ‘elohim, bene ‘elohim, bene ‘elim). This finds a ready explanation in their origin in the sons of the Canaanite god El.

Eventually, of course, the name El simply became a general word for ‘God’ in the Old Testament, and so it is found many times.

(pg. 25)

The divine assembly is also referred to in Isa. 14.13 be means of a word from the same root as in Ps. 82.1, where the Shining One, son of the dawn boasts, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God (‘el) I will set my throne on  high; I will sit on the mount of assembly (har mo ‘ed)’. It will be recalled that at Ugarit El’s assembly of the gods did indeed met on a mountain. It is also interesting that the name of ‘el (God) is mentioned in the phrase ‘stars of God’, and that the stars and the sons of God are sometimes equated.

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2 comments on “Excerpt from “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” by John Day

  1. mushu2us@yahoo.com says:

    Hi, this has been a great topic of research lately for me, and I agree with what I am reading here. However, the one question this leaves me with then, is who really is the God of the New Testament, the Abba Father of Jesus Christ? How did El, or Yahweh, evolve into this person? Who was Jesus referring to? His conception of the God of the OT? whew……

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