God’s Name in Canaan

Archaeology can often provide historical context for stories in the Bible. Finds from coastal northern Syria shed light on God’s name in the Bible.

In Genesis Chapter 6, “God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. (KJV)”

In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name here is ‘Elohim.’ Derivations of this name for God appear across the Hebrew Bible, in the names Elohim, El, El Elyon (Most High God), El Olam (Everlasting God), El Shaddai (God Almighty) and El Roi (the God who sees me). The one commonality is that ‘El’ is at the root of all these different names.

The term ‘Canaanites’ is commonly used to refer to groups of people who lived in the region of the Southern Levant extending up the coast to include Lebanon and parts of Syria. These groups spoke a Northwest Semitic language related to Hebrew.

Ras Shamra is a city in northern coastal Syria. In 1928, the ancient city of Ugarit was accidentally discovered at Ras Shamra, waking Ugarit’s remains after a 3000-year slumber. Though individual cities of the Levant had their own unique elements, Ugarit is still classified as being Canaanite.

The Ugaritic people spoke a Northwest Semitic language. It was an important city, as evidence by a fortified wall, and it was well positioned on the coast for trade with empires further inland. With dating based on earlier objects associated with Egyptian pharaohs, the city appears to have peaked in the mid-2nd millennium. Amongst the findings at Ugarit were a series of mythological texts, written in a cuneiform script, that together are known as the Baal Cycle. These stories shed light on Canaanite beliefs.

In the Canaanite pantheon of gods, Yam is the god of the sea, Mot is the god of death and the underworld, and Baal the god of lightening and weather. In the Baal Cycle, these gods vie for supremacy. These gods are also brothers, children of the supreme god El. In one of the plot turns of the Baal Cycle, Baal complains that he needs a palace because he is still living in his father El’s house. Thus we see that the Bible’s identification of El as God, though uniquely alone and without the other gods, is consistent with the region’s identification of El as the chief god of the pantheon. The Bible’s reverence for El fits its ancient historical context.

The original Baal Cycle documents, important for linking the Bible to the past, can be seen today. Tablets can be viewed at the Louvre Museum in Paris or without moving anywhere by clicking on the following link: http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=21646

Another portion of the tablets are housed at The National Museum of Aleppo, Syria, referenced here: (http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=the_ugaritic_baal_myth). For the time being, I would not advocate travel there.

Next Week: Abraham and Geography