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Saturday, January 22, 2011

El, El Elyon in Genesis 14:18-19, 22

Against those who would find in Melchizedek a priest of a different deity than Abram's El Elyon creator of heaven and earth (Gen 14:18-19, 22), are the statements of F. M. Cross

“ ‘El is rarely if ever used in the Bible as a proper name of a non-Israelite, Canaanite deity in the full consciousness of a distinction between ‘El and Yahweh, god of Israel.” F. M. Cross[1] 1973:44
        “I am inclined to believe that  ‘elyon in Genesis 14 serves as a proper epithet of El … the creator god of Jerusalem was El, and later, at least, the epithets ‘elyon and ‘eli both became standard epithets of Yahweh alonside his alias El.” F. M. Cross[1] 1973:51-52

John Day[2] 2000:20 claims that El Elyon in Gen. 14:19, 22 is an example of El as creator language appropriated for use in reference to YHWH:
… there is some evidence that there are occasions on which the Old Testament has appropriated El language when it speaks of Yahweh as creator. Thus, it can hardly be a coincidence that Gen. 14:19, 22 speaks of ‘El-Elyon, creator (qoneh) of heaven and earth’, and Deut. 32.6 declares, ‘Is not he your father, who created you (qaneka)’. This is so because not only is it the case that the verb qnh is used outside the Bible to speak of El’s creative activity, but in both cases cited above we have other evidence supporting El influence: Gen. 14:19 and 22 specifically refer to El(- Elyon), and Deut. 32.8 also refers to the ‘sons of God’ (implicitly seventy, deriving from the seventy sons of El) as well as the name Elyon
The notion of appropriation is crucial for our understanding of god-language in the OT. When we see the names of foreign deities used outside of prophetic contexts where the pagan deities are being lambasted by the prophet, the question of reference will often arise. Most of the time Ba‘l (aka Baal) is not going to be a problem in this regard. Ba‘l is seldom if ever used in context where the referent could possibly be the God of Israel. By way of contrast El (with or without epithets) is used frequently with reference to the God of Israel. This borrowed god-language includes formulas like ‏אל עליון קנה שמים וארץ El Elyon creator of heaven and earth. That fact that we find similar language used in reference to Canaanite deities isn't a cause for concern since appropriation of language from pagan sources is a common feature of the Old Testament.

Appropriaton is a complex process. Not only are the original referents for the divine names changed but the cosmology and theology represented in the borrowed language in its original cultural religious setting in some cases is simply ignored by the biblical author. In other words the language may remain intact but the meaning is transformed into biblical authors cultural religious framework. In other cases the borrowed language is put to use in refuting the cosmology and theology of the culture from which it was appropriated. In this way the language is turned against the source culture, something like an ancient form of deconstruction.

[1] Frank Moore Cross: Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, Harvard University, 1973

[2] John Day, “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan”, Sheffield 2000.


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