El Elyon ... the One True God or just another Canaanite myth?
The general idea behind Hebraic thought is simply that there is a creator God who exists outside of all creation, who, in fact, created all that exists. This creator God also created mankind, giving them a choice to love or not to love. The first man chose to live life under his own rules, rejecting the law of God, and because of this rejection life became harsh and the creator God took back, in some aspect, the forces that kept the world from hurting mankind—there were no thorns, cultivation was easier, natural disasters didn’t occur, and so forth. So, the first man and the first woman would face a reality outside of God’s full grace.
The OOEs! (those first couple of generations who came Out Of Egypt)
The first five books of the Bible give us the basis for understanding life in ancient Israel. They were written around 1400BC, and they were NOT written as historical documents, though they are thoroughly historical. Actually, “history” as we know it (the genre of writing) really didn’t begin until much more recent times, and even today it can be argued that no one writes history for history’s sake. Everything that is written is done so for a purpose other than simply retelling the story—it would be impossible to retell every single event; instead, what we find are specifically chosen events that lead the reader to understand the lesson that the author intends to convey. That is also what we find in the first five books of the Bible. Here, Moses, is intending the Israelites—the first few generations of those who came out of Egypt—to understand who the one-true, creator God really is. These are examples of religious propaganda, though you shouldn’t think of this as a bad thing. The Israelites had become quite polytheistic while in Egypt, and Moses needed to straighten them out … to show them who they are, where they came from, and why they are so important. So, as we read the creation account, we *can* in fact understand scientific principles from this, but only secondarily to the more important truth—that God created all things, not some range of deities that the Israelites may have heard of. It’s interesting that Moses refused to use the word “sun” or “moon” in the creation account, instead calling them greater or lesser lights. This has puzzled people, but when you realize that Yarikh was the Moon god and Shemesh was the Sun god, then it’s a little easier to understand. The creator God didn’t create Yarikh (moon) or Shemesh (sun) the deities … He created those material things in the sky. And what about all the stars? Moses, in one little statement, wipes away all the deities that could be related to the stars by saying something akin to “oh yeah, and he created the stars too.” This idea is what we would call a polemic against the gods of the Israelites’ neighbors. Again, the Old Testament was designed to teach the Israelites the truth of who God is and how God is greater than everything.
This polemical nature isn’t restricted to the books of Moses. We find this all throughout the Old Testament. King’s was written as a way of showing the Israelites why kingship should never have happened. Judges was written to show the spiraling nature of a drop down into paganism (like a toilet flushing); some theologians even question whether or not Samson was a good guy or just a bad guy that God used. Even some of the psalms seem to be a polemic at times. Take for example Psalm 82, which reads:
82:1 A psalm of Asaph. God stands in the assembly of El; in the midst of the gods he renders judgment. 82:2 He says, “How long will you make unjust legal decisions and show favoritism to the wicked? (Selah) 82:3 Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering! 82:4 Rescue the poor and needy! Deliver them from the power of the wicked! 82:5 They neither know nor understand. They stumble around in the dark, while all the foundations of the earth crumble. 82:6 I thought, ‘You are gods; all of you are sons of the Most High.’ 82:7 Yet you will die like mortals; you will fall like all the other rulers.” 82:8 Rise up, O God, and execute judgment on the earth! For you own all the nations.
Here we have the God of Israel standing in the assembly of El (the chief god of Canaan) and his children (the lower deities). A lot of people really push this issue, saying that the early Israelites were in fact polytheistic and not monotheistic until later times (specifically the time of the Exile and thereafter). Another evidence for this is Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which reads: “When the Most High [Elyon] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly. For [Yahweh]’s allotment is his people, Jacob is his special possession.” Here, again, we have a reference to Elyon, presumably the Canaanite chief god El, but I think something else is going on here. I don’t think this is a reference to the chief god, El, in this Deuteronomy passage. I think it is definitely a reference to El in the Psalms passage, but not here, and the reason is the context—one of the early books of Israel’s history. Take a peek over at Genesis 14 with me. Beginning in verse 17, we read:
After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet Abram in the Valley of Shaveh (known as the King’s Valley). 14:18 Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (Now he was the priest of the [El Elyon].) 14:19 He blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by [El Elyon], Creator of heaven and earth. 14:20 Worthy of praise is [El Elyon], who delivered your enemies into your hand." Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything.
14:21 Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself.' 14:22 But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, 'I raise my hand to [Yahweh], [El Elyon], Creator of heaven and earth, and vow […]"
Clearly here, El Elyon is equated with Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, and if you remember, at this point in the history of Canaan, Ba’alism had not yet been established. Worship throughout Canaan was centered on El worship, that is until around 1825 BC when we clearly see a shift in the names of kings from El-centered names to Baal-centered names, but at that point Israel is in Egypt.Why the difference? I think what we are seeing here is that El Elyon, the God Most High, very early on was associated with the one, true God, Yahweh, though in a very syncretized form—including a wife, child deities, etc.—but still God and workable for the Lord’s purpose with Abraham. This doesn’t mean that Abraham was worshipping Asherah or any of the other deities, but it means that those in the land didn’t understand pure Yahwism from the proper perspective, and that was what Abraham’s job actually was … to be the father of the nation who would teach the world how to properly worship God. Back to Psalm 82: El vs Yahweh
By the time of Psalm 82, though, El was understood as just another one of the Canaanite gods by the local population, and any adherence to Canaanite worship needed to be stopped.So what’s going on in Psalm 82? This is where the polemics get interesting. As you read the psalm, “God stands in the assembly of El; in the midst of the gods he renders judgment,” it sounds as if the writer of the psalm (Asaph) actually believes this, but does it really? Does it show that Asaph believes this or that the audience to whom he is writing believes this? I think the latter is the case here. The psalm continues with judgment of the gods, showing that they really can’t do what needs to be done, and therefore aren’t really gods at all. Listen,
82:2 He says, “How long will you make unjust legal decisions and show favoritism to the wicked? (Selah)
Yeah, the gods are actually wicked. What should they be doing, if they were actually gods?
82:3 Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering! 82:4 Rescue the poor and needy! Deliver them from the power of the wicked!
All of this is what the gods are NOT doing. Then Yahweh turns to Israel and talks about the gods:
82:5 They neither know nor understand. They stumble around in the dark, while all the foundations of the earth crumble.
The biblical writer is here breaking down the trust that Israel has of the false gods. Yahweh continues talking to the false gods:
82:6 I thought, ‘You are gods; all of you are sons of the Most High.’ 82:7 Yet you will die like mortals; you will fall like all the other rulers.”
By now, Asaph has destroyed the gods—they aren’t really deities … they’re just mortals. Finally, now that the gods have been dealt with, the very last verse puts things back into perspective—it shows what’s really going on. Listen:
82:8 Rise up, O God, and execute judgment on the earth! For you own all the nations.
You see, the very nature of this text is anti-El’s assembly … anti-gods. And I think that is the biblical norm. Throughout the texts of Scripture, what is being taught is always that Yahweh (the covenant God of Israel) is the one, true, creator God, and that He alone rules supreme. Unfortunately, the Israelites didn’t always accept that, and just like what happened with El in those early days of history, a folk-religion was born and the people started adding to and taking away from true worship of God. The scriptures are here to set things straight.