#294. To which god was Balaam subservient: Yahweh OR El? (Num 23:8, 23:26 vs Num 23:8)
#295. By which god was Israel blessed: Yahweh OR El? (Num 24:1 vs Num 24:4)
#296. Who liberated the Israelites from Egypt: Yahweh OR El? (Ex 20:21; Lev 19:36, 23:43; Deut 5:6, 13:10, etc. vs Num 23:22, 24:8)


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!?

4 thoughts on “#294. To which god was Balaam subservient: Yahweh OR El? (Num 23:8, 23:26 vs Num 23:8)
#295. By which god was Israel blessed: Yahweh OR El? (Num 24:1 vs Num 24:4)
#296. Who liberated the Israelites from Egypt: Yahweh OR El? (Ex 20:21; Lev 19:36, 23:43; Deut 5:6, 13:10, etc. vs Num 23:22, 24:8)

  1. The El of the Northern Israelite sites of Bethel, Dan, and Tabor (as per Robert Graves, who in “The White Goddess” said; “And we know that Atabyrius was the god, worshipped as a golden calf, whom … Jehovah of Tabor, or Atabyrius, with Dionysus the Danaan White Bull-god”), was characterized as a bull god, in the writings found at Ugarit. Thus his son Baal, is plausibly a calf. And given Balaam’s link with Aram-Naharaim (called by the name “Nahrima” in the Amarna letters, and associated with the land of Mitanni) Is there any room to associate Baal Peor with the famous “calf god” (even with the Greek Dionysus)? The raucous “play” of worship that the Israelites engaged in for the calf, reminds me of the incident at Baal Peor. Or with the connection between Chemosh and Carchemesh could there be any attachment of Mitanni to Midian (or Moab)?

  2. You are correct. Baal is not only the name of a specific (weather) god, but a general title like Lord, master and even husband. It could also be used instead of the “sacred” name of the deity, like Hadad, the very way orthodox Jews use adon(ai) for Yahweh. And I agree about Karen Armstrong’s History of God. I saw Dever’s lecture on Yahweh’s wife and he is excellent as well as very entertaining.

  3. Very well put. This really is clever detective work, unweaving the various braids that were put sometimes more and sometimes less carefully in the text to suit the various theo-political purposes. And it is only possible to be done by scholars like you who can read the original texts (which I cannot although there now are some tools available like at biblehub.com that allow you to see the original Hebrew word used), because the conscious replacement with terms like Lord and God take that detail away. I wonder what you think about the book “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright on this topic of El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Yahweh, Baal (let’s not forget him) and Yahweh’s wife?

    1. I’m not familiar with Wright’s work. That said, I have relied heavily on the work of Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel; William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel; and Frank Cross’ early work. All of these works put forward the biblical and archaeological evidence to convincingly support an early Yahweh-El synthesis and later assimilation. Many of these scholars have voiced an additional argument from silence in support of this synthesis—namely contrary to the heavy-handed polemic against Baal throughout the Bible, there is no polemic against El.

      I have often thought that any history looking into the evolution of God (Karen Armstrong’s work is to be avoided here) must account for the Septuagint translation of Yahweh by “Lord.” This seems to be a crucial part in moving from texts that are basically making the theological argument that Yahweh is God (e.g., Deuteronomy, deutero-Isaiah) to the Septuagint’s diluted version where the argument now becomes asserting that “the Lord” is God. Well, who would deny? In other words, we move from a cultural argument asserting a specific national deity, Yahweh, as God (cf. Marduk’s ascendency to the “God of gods” in the Enuma Elish) to one that now argues for an abstract titulary, LORD, as God. Much of the theology of the OT is gone in this new impersonal re-imaging. And given the LXX translators’ penchant for Greek philosophical ideas, it’s just a small jump now to import Greek abstract notions of the divine, or theological notions of omniscience, into this new text. One of the most significant examples is where the name Yahweh becomes ὁ ὤν in the LXX (Ex 3:14), a word synonymous with “Being” in a very philosophical sense. Secondly, “LORD” now also opens the door to Christological re-readings of the Hebrew text that are often quite abusive and negligent in nature. One of my reasons for insisting on using the name Yahweh on this blog is 1) to be literally faithful to the Hebrew text and its theology; and 2) to avoid these later philosophical and Christological overtones when reading the Hebrew text. Curiously, if I recall correctly, the Syro-Canaanite name Baal literally means “Lord”!

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