In contradiction #27—Is Yahweh and El the same god or different gods? (which has become one of my most visited posts)—I not only laid out the biblical evidence suggesting that Yahweh and El were variously viewed as the same deity on several occasions, while in a few rare instances as two distinct deities, but I also summarized the scholarly evidence for the claim that (some of ?) the early Israelites actually worshiped El as Israel’s god and that Yahweh eventually usurped El’s characteristics and domain through a process of assimilation.
The Balaam pericope (Num 22-24) is another piece of textual evidence that bears witness to an early stage in Israelite religion when Yahweh and El co-harmoniously existed as two distinct deities in an original Canaanite pantheon. This is particularly the case in the poetic sections.
For example, Numbers 23:8 accords El and Yahweh equal footing:
How can I curse whom El has not cursed,
and how can I doom whom Yahweh has not doomed?
In short, what this verse explicates is that Balaam had not received any pronouncement against Israel from either El or Yahweh! Baruch Levine, whose textual acumen and knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Canaanite languages far exceeds that of my own, concludes from an in-depth analysis of the poem sections that the author(s) of the Balaam poem uses El as a proper noun, not the generic ‘el of later biblical Hebrew, usually translated as “god.” These 9th century poetic sections, Levine concludes, attest to a time prior to the synthesis of Yahweh and El.
“In the Balaam poems one senses that this synthesis has not yet occurred and that El, Shaddai and Elyon, along with Yahweh, coexist in a regional pantheon.” (Levine, Numbers 21-36, Anchor Bible Series, 173)
Thus, these poetic sections represent a period in Israelite religion—or taking Levine’s cue from “regional,” Transjordanian religious practices (?)—prior to the 6th century Priestly writer’s explicit attempt at synthesizing the ancient worship of El by early Israelites with the exclusive worship of Yahweh in later periods. Again, this is most visible in P’s comment in Exodus 6:2-3, where he has Yahweh proclaim to Moses:
“I am Yahweh, and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, and I was not known to them by my name Yahweh!”
I have already written at length about P’s theological claim here since it clashes pretty violently with the Yahweh of the Yahwist tradition who attests in numerable places that he, Yahweh, was in fact known by name by the patriarchs (see #11).
We should not fail to notice what the Priestly writer was attempting to specifically accomplish here. Exodus 6:2-3 is basically asserting that those patriarchs (and indigenous Canaanites ?) who previously worshiped the Canaanite El were in fact worshiping Yahweh! You can’t carve a better synthesis than that. I reproduce Levine’s comments on this as well, because I find his assessment well articulated and right on point.
“What is rationalized in Exodus 6 as prior fact is, in reality, the outcome of a diachronic process on the theological level, and of a progressive source-critical redaction on the textual level. In a word, it is synthesis. The patriarchs had actually worshipped the deity El, variously known as El Shaddai and (El) Elyon (cf. Deut 32:7-8). What their descendants were being told is that Yahweh was taking over from El, and was henceforth to be worshipped as if he had always been their god. They should no longer turn to El for help, but to Yahweh; and furthermore, they should now believe that all that they had attributed to El in the past was really the work of Yahweh. In summary, the text of Exodus 6:2-8 records the ascendancy of the national god Yahweh, whose cult was henceforth to be the only legitimate one in Israel” (221).
This synthesis, Levine continues, is not present in the Balaam poems! In the poem sections of the Balaam pericope, Yahweh and El are variously represented as the deities to whom Balaam is subservient.
The real shocker here in these poem sections is the mention of El, not Yahweh, as Israel’s liberator from Egypt!
El, who liberated him from Egypt, has horns like a wild ox. (Num 23:22, 24:8)
What we might have here is a regional formula endemic to the religious practices of Transjordan. I don’t think this would be an antagonistic statement against Yahweh; but rather since Yahweh and El were viewed as co-existing harmoniously in this regional pantheon, it is merely a statement that the regional gods, preeminently El, liberated Israel from Egypt. In our current context, this former liberation is invoked since here too El and Yahweh are seen as “liberating” Israel from any potential or real threat from the Moabites of the region.
This all changes of course in later biblical formulations where it becomes, according to this assessment, Yahweh who liberates Israel. “I am Yahweh your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” As Levine states: “The liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, earlier attributed to the regional god El, was now being accredited to the national god Yahweh.”
In sum, these biblical passages, including those mentioned in contradiction #27, attest to the fact that El was the original god of Israel and that Yahweh was later assimilated to El by loyal devotees of Yahwism. So in this centuries long diachronic process of subversive reinterpretation and reimagination, Yahweh usurps El, Jesus usurps Yahweh, Allah usurps Jesus. . . Is it that difficult for our species allegedly “created in the image of God (variously El, Yahweh, Jesus, Allah)” to use our god-created intellects and be brutally honest about this whole process of theologized syncretism and subversion!?