Decoupling YHWH and El

Many scholars of early Israelite religion have posited that in the most archaic Israelite worldview, YHWH and El were conceived of as separate deities. This theory generally holds that YHWH was a southern storm god, most likely from Seir, which was brought north with the Israelites and conflated with the Jerusalem patriarchal deity El. This conflation would have taken place sometime around the beginning of the monarchy as a means of consolidating political as well as ideological allegiance under the king. Scholars who espouse this viewpoint generally point to the Elohistic nature of the name Israel, the blatant storm god imagery in the earliest Yahwistic poetry, the paucity of Yahwistic names prior to the monarchy, the lack of polemic against the Syro-Palestinian El, and the Elohist/Yahwist source-critical disparity.

On the other side of the discussion are scholars who hold they were always conceived of as one single deity (or originally one, later decoupled, and then reunited, a la Cross or Wyatt). These scholars defend this position most commonly on the grounds that no distinction between the two can be clearly found in the Hebrew Bible. Michael Heiser, who wrote a very intriguing dissertation on the divine council, has become one of the most prominent recent proponents of this viewpoint. A 2006 Hiphil article addressing this question is found here. In this article Heiser addresses the former theory as expressed by Mark Smith in his book, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism:

The author of Psalm 82 deposes the older theology, as Israel’s deity is called to assume a new role as judge of all the world. Yet at the same time, Psalm 82, like Deut 32:8–9, preserves the outlines of the older theology it is rejecting. From the perspective of this older theology, Yahweh did not belong to the top tier of the pantheon. Instead, in early Israel the god of Israel apparently belonged to the second tier of the pantheon; he was not the presider god, but one of his sons.

The backdrop for this statement is Smith’s discussion of the four-tiered Syro-Palestinian pantheon. In this reconstruction, El and Asherah inhabit the top tier as parental gods. The “active deities” (Handy‘s term) are the 70 sons of El who inhabit the second tier and act as the pro- and antagonists in most of the literature. The third tier holds the craftsmen deities, of which we can point to only one explicit example: Kothar-wa-Hasis. The bottom tier is inhabited by messenger deities (the ml’km, or “angels”). Smith points to two sets of biblical texts that seem to preserve an early distinction between YHWH and the patriarchal deity (Deut 32:8–9; Psalm 82), and it is these scriptures that Heiser addresses in his article. I’d like to respond to Heiser’s article and discuss my perspective of the two relevant texts (I briefly discussed them recently here).

Dr. Heiser begins his discussion with a few important points about the interpretive framework of Smith’s conclusions. That framework develops, according to Heiser, on the assumptions that (1) Deutero-Isaiah marks the first appeals to strict monotheism, (2) Yahwistic universalism developed roughly contemporaneously, and (3) the בני אלהים were all but eradicated by the Second Temple Period. What uses of the phrase were left were identified as angelic references.

Regarding the first point, Heiser correctly explains that the language of Deutero-Isaiah is repeated almost verbatim in Deuteronomy 4 and 32, but that in all these examples strict monotheism is actually never expressed. The rhetoric only asserts the impotence of other gods, not their ontological non-existence. See his excellent analysis here.

On the second point, “several enthronement psalms” are appealed to to show a universal view of YHWH well before the exile. This is a much more nuanced problem, however. Heiser cites Psalm 29 as an early appeal to universalism, but Psalm 29 is generally recognized as a direct, almost verbatim, appeal to storm god imagery, not to El or universalism.[1] A storm god would be a much more likely candidate for one who sits enthroned over the flood. Here Heiser assumes “flood” is a reference to the waters that sit suspended above the earth, but the word in use here is מבול, which is never used to indicate the heavenly waters. In fact, outside of Psalm 29, it is only ever used in reference to the Noahide deluge. Additionally, the phrase can just as accurately (or more accurately according to some, like Rendsburg or Freedman) be translated “YHWH sits enthroned since the flood.” YHWH is presented in Psalm 29 as one who reigns over the waters (the storm god). The other appeals to simple kingship in no way indicate universalism, as Baal is also mentioned as having an “eternal kingship” (KTU I find no clear indication of a universal view of YHWH in the older literature.

Regarding Heiser’s third point, I am not in disagreement regarding a perpetuation of divine council imagery, but I do believe that the later manifestation included a conflation with angels. I discuss that briefly here, where I argue the Septuagint expansion of Deut 32:43 shows a clear attempt at equating the angels with the “sons of God.” Heiser points to a lack of lexical overlap in the two terms in a computer generated search of Qumran material as an indication no such equation is clear, but no mention is made of the Septuagint, nor of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Deut 32:8, where it is seventy angels, not sons of El, appointed to rule over the nations. There are also a few Qumran texts that describe the offending deities of Genesis 6 as angels (4Q180, for instance), and Qumran’s Targum of Job changes “sons of God” from Job 38:7 to “angels of God.”

There is no clear universalism prior to the late pre-exilic and exilic periods, and the conceptualization of the sons of El clearly evolved in the Second Temple Period. While I do not believe an explicit monotheism is clear anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, I don’t think there needs to be in order for YHWH’s conflation with El to have been considered necessary. I do believe Smith’s dating is late. He posits the conflation of El and YHWH somewhere in the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, but I think the conclusions of Van der Toorn et al., regarding an early monarchic date, is more supported by the evidence.

Moving on to the texts, Heiser evaluates Simon B. Parker’s analysis of Psalm 82 (”The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” Revue Biblique 102.4 [1995]: 532–59). His primary concern is the use of the verb קומה in Ps 82:8. If YHWH was told to rise then he must have been seated, which would indicate sovereignty over the council and equate him with El. Heiser states,

If it is critical to pay close attention to posture in verse 1, then the same should be done in verse 8. Doing so leads to the opposite conclusion for which Parker argues.

No argument is given, however, as to why YHWH’s posture in v. 1 should be discounted, and Heiser overlooks Parker’s discussion of v. 8 as a liturgical interjection. קומה is found numerous times in the Psalms with YHWH as the object (3:8; 7:7; 9:20; 10:12; 17:13; 132:8). In each instance it is the Psalter giving the imperative. Ps 82:8 is most likely an interjection by the narrator, not a command from one of the characters in the narrative. With this understood, YHWH is seen as standing in the council of El receiving the stewardships of those unrighteous deities who neglected them previously. If Parker’s theory regarding the literary backdrop of this scene is correct (2 Sam 15 and KTU 1.16.VI.39–54), then YHWH should not be seen as presiding in the council, but as a subordinate bringing a charge.

Regarding Deut 32:8–9, Heiser first engages the question of the use of כי in v. 9. Whether it is to be understood as adversative or emphatic, in my opinion, is moot, as the word is most likely not original. As John Hobbins has argued previously (“Taking Stock of Biblia Hebraica Quinta,” JETh 22 (2008): 37–56, and here), the Septuagint translation of these verses betrays ויהי at the beginning of v. 9. כי, he argues, seems to have accompanied the interpolation of ישראל into the text, and is not original. This ameliorates the difficulty with such a peculiar use of that word and supports YHWH’s reception of Israel as a dependent clause to the division of the nations to the gods.

Heiser continues, positing the epithet עליון may refer to Baal rather than El, given Baal’s association with the word in two places (KTU 1.16.III.6, 8). In the Hebrew Bible, however, Elyon is not associated with YHWH until much later literature, but is repeatedly associated with El (Gen 14:18–22; Ps 78:35; Ps 82:6). Ps 82:6 is particularly relevant, given the phrase found there is בני עליון. Other early texts, Heiser argues, equate YHWH with Elyon, but only insofar as they appeal to the same imagery. Since YHWH appropriated the imagery of Baal and others without being directly identified with them, that appropriation does not necessarily support the equating of the two.

Next Heiser argues internal consistency favors associating YHWH with Elyon, but this presupposes the univocality of the book of Deuteronomy, and overlooks the dynamic of frozen liturgical epithets. Deut 32:8–9 most likely predate the rest of Deuteronomy 32. After all, v. 7 states that it is the fathers and the elders of Israel who will inform the younger generation of the arrangement of vv. 8–9. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy 32 the author explicitly denies the efficacy and the legitimacy of the gods of the nations (see vv. 16, 17, 21). This is peculiar rhetoric if we are to understand that YHWH (or Elyon) has established their stewardships over those nations. The chapter is ideologically inconsistent, supporting the view that vv. 8–9 were incorporated into the chapter from an older, frozen tradition that most likely did not associate YHWH with Elyon. The later addition of כי may evince an attempt to reconcile the later conflation. Appealing to the view that Israel was “found” by YHWH in the desert (Deut 32:10), and “taken,” rather than allotted to YHWH (Deut 9:26, 29; 29:25) does not suffice if vv. 8–9 are indeed imported from a more archaic setting. This, I believe, is the most parsimonious explanation for the conflicting ideologies, and fits well with the poetic nature of the Song of Moses.

Heiser concludes that those who would espouse Smith and Parker’s conclusions have a number of incongruities to account for. I hope I have succeeded in accounting, to some degree, for those perceived incongruities. All that is left is to conclude that YHWH in Deut 32:8–9 and Psalm 82 is not acting as head of any council, but is playing the role of member. Granted, he is a privileged member in the eyes of the composers of these texts, but he is not clearly associated with the presiding authority, and the vernacular that is found does treat him as a subordinate. Later ideologies seek to overcome this distinction (including the interpolation of “YHWH” parallel to אל עליון in Genesis 14:22), but these texts are not chronologically two dimensional. The remaining evidence supports the view of a pre-monarchic distinction between YHWH and El. El seems preeminent prior to the monarchy, evinced by the name Israel, by the onomastica, and the trajectory of Yahwism once the monarchy was established. The cognate literature also supports the tiered pantheon proposed by Handy and Smith (although the craftsman deity tier is questionable). Deuteronomy and the Psalms seem to preserve very early mythic imagery that attests to this hierarchy, and YHWH fits the bill as a son of El and a member of the second tier of that pantheon.



1 – See Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (JSOTSup 265; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 95–98. As noted by Day (97, n. 16), several scholars have argued the chapter is a wholesale appropriation of a Canaanite poem with YHWH’s name substituted for Ba’al (see particularly, T. H. Gaster, “Psalm 29,” JQR 37 [1946–47]: 55–65; and F.  M. Cross, “Notes on a Canaanite Psalm in the Old Testament,” BASOR 117 [1950]: 19–21).


8 responses to “Decoupling YHWH and El

  • Akma » Pondering

    […] reading through Daniel McClellan’s “Decoupling YHWH and El,” and as a side effect of thinking about cultural polytheism, I began to think about Exodus […]

  • John Hobbins

    Very nice, Dan.

    You’ll want to look at Mark Smith’s recent volume “God in Translation.”

    And Mike Heiser’s Divine Council article in the IVP Dictionary volume edited by Longman and Enns.

    Here are some off-the-cuff comments.

    (1) Handy and Smith’s four-tier hypothesis for the Ugaritic pantheon is shaky. I would say three tiers with the craftsman or demiurge below the top tier but on a par with, not subordinate with, the second tier.

    (2) Heiser’s three-tier hypothesis for the Israelite pantheon is sound. But I think it’s probable that Deut 32 in a pre-canonical form put YHWH on the second tier. If the LXX Vorlage is reconstructed, it still is easiest to interpret the language in that way, but it seems to me it probably wasn’t, from the early monarchy period on.

    Ps 82:1 as it stands is just weird. In place of the first elohim, a DN once stood: which? At any rate, as the Psalm stands in the context of the Psalter, Elohim = Yhwh.

    I also agree with Michael thus far about Second Temple angelology, that the syntheses he interacts with ride roughshod over the data in hand. But has he come up with a more convincing synthesis? Of that I am less sure. I wonder if he’s worked through TSAJ 34, Mach’s Entwicklungsstadien.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Hey, thanks for the comments John. (I always appreciate a more informed perspective than mine!) I’m waiting for Smith’s new book through interlibrary loan. It looks phenomenal. I wasn’t aware of Heiser’s article in the Dictionary of the Old Testament. I’ll check it out.

    (1) Handy’s work on the topic has always seemed a little more tenuous than Smith’s (and much too long!). I do recognize the theory as it stands requires a lot of refinement, but I use it since it’s the best I’ve found to this point. I am hoping to put my own hand to that wheel once I’m into a PhD program. Regarding the craftsman deity, I wanted to pursue אמון from Prov 8:30 as some kind of remnant. I’m intrigued by the three tier system, although I have concerns about how it connects to the Two Powers in Heaven ideology. Kothar-wa-Hasis also seems too much to me like a servant or cheerleader to Baal than a hierarchical equal, but I definitely don’t have as much experience with that particular aspect of the pantheon, so I can’t speak authoritatively.

    (2) I haven’t finished Heiser’s dissertation (it’s not readily available at the moment), but I am planning on revisiting it before I refine this research further. Regarding Psalm 82, I agree that אלהים = יהוה, but I think אל and עליון, as well as the setting, are culled from older imagery, like the source for Deut 32:8.

    I agree regarding the angelology argument Heiser engages, but I still think there is plenty of support for my interpretation with which he doesn’t seem to interact. I don’t think of אלהים as being equated with מלאכים in Second Temple literature, but rather the בני אלהים as being identified as angels. In that respect I agree with Heiser that אלהים is a reference to the realm of their existence rather than some species designation (although I disagree that YHWH is “species unique).

    Ironically, I had Mach’s book in hand for a couple of weeks with the intention of going through it carefully (the German still doesn’t come quite as fluidly as do French and Spanish), but I had to return it. Those Mohr Siebeck volumes are going to be the death of me.

    I appreciate the notes. I’ll definitely spend some more time with them once the semester gets into full swing. With my access to all things Oxford through the next year it should be a lot easier to find a lot of this scholarship. Thanks again!

  • John Hobbins

    Once you are in to your program and know for sure what your research focus will be, don’t hesitate to email Collins, Smith, and Heiser. In my experience, they are all cordial scholars who will be happy to interact with you.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    I’m planning on it. I’ve had limited interaction with the professional members of the academy, but those few with whom I have spoken (including you) have been incredibly gracious and helpful.

    • Matt

      John Day is also very cordial. I am not in the field and yet he was quick to respond to me about an inquiry into his book Yahweh and the Gods and Godesses of Canaan.

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        He is. Most of the Oxford folk are. I first met Stephanie Dalley while waiting in line at a Sainsbury’s, and she couldn’t have been more pleasant. John Barton, Nicolas Wyatt, Hugh Williamson, and others attend Oxford’s Old Testament seminar every other week and are a lot of fun to be around. Mark Smith is nice as well, and I look forward to meeting with John Collins and Michael Heiser at SBL this year.

  • New Master’s Thesis on the Divine Council « Daniel O. McClellan

    […] kingship over the gods. My discussion of Heiser’s arguments associated with that point is here. Porter finds no reason to even question Heiser, though, appealing, once again, to a univocal […]

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