E. J. Wilson D.O. | Jerusalem
In 2006 Horowitz and Oshima published Cuneiform in Canaan, in which the cuneiform inscriptions that had been found within the ancient boundaries of Canaan up to that time were presented with editions and translations. Some of these inscriptions had been found at Taanach and were in standard cuneiform, and dated to the late 15th century BCE. 1 Of particular interest to us here is Taanach 2, which is a letter from a certain Ahiami to Talwašur 2 (as is Taanach 1). The transliteration (taken from the edition in Horowitz and Oshima 2006) and translation of lines 1-3a of the obverse are as follows:
|1 a-na mTal-wa-šur [q]í-bí||To Talwašur [s]ay:|
|2 um-ma mŠEŠ-ia-mi EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu||Message of Ahiami: May the Lord God|
|3 ZI-ka lí-iṣ-ṣur . . .||guard your life.|
In this letter, the thing that catches one's eye is that Horowitz and Oshima use the phrase “Lord God” to translate EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu. The term “Lord God” immediately calls to mind (at least to English speaker’s familiar with traditional Bible translations) the fact that this is the same designation for the deity of Israel as it appears in Genesis 2 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
And that fact in turn raises the question of the relationship between this cuneiform expression and the Hebrew term
yhwh ᵓelohīm. The relationship is important, because Hebrew is essentially a form of the Canaanite language.
Therefore, anything we can determine about the grammatical construction or usage of the phrase in one language, may shed light on the use of the parallel phrase in the other language. So, it is disappointing that after more than a century of modern biblical research and analysis, there is still no consensus concerning the meaning, or even the grammatical form of the Hebrew term. Therefore, before we can use any information about the Hebrew phrase to shed light on the Cuneiform phrase, we must first look more closely at the Hebrew phrase. But before tackling that, we may note that – on the cuneiform side – is the fact that the term DINGIR.MEŠ is common, and often translated elsewhere with the mere (and theologically non-controversial) word “gods.” That simpler term occurs, for example, in Taanach 1, where Horowitz and Oshima translate DINGIR.MEŠ with the expected word, “gods:”
|. . . . .||. . . . .|
|4 bu-lu-uṭ dam-qí-˹iš˺||Live well.|
|5 DINGIR.˹MEŠ˺ li-iš-a-lu||May the gods ask after|
|6 ˹šu˺-lim-ka šu-lum||your health, the health|
|7 É-ka DUMU.MEŠ-ka||of your house (and) your sons.|
|. . . . .||. . . . .|
In the case of Taanach 2, however, there are a couple of complicating factors: The first is the addition of the Sumerogram EN as part of the expression, and the second is the phonetic complement -nu. And in order to determine the proper translation for the entire phrase EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu we will certainly have to examine not only the cuneiform expression itself, but we will also need to discuss the use of the English term “Lord God” and whether it is even an appropriate translation for the Hebrew phrase יהוה אלהים (yhwh ᵓelohīm). This determination is a desideratum because the cuneiform phrase in question was doubtless written by Canaanite scribes (as will be discussed below) and therefore must be viewed as the cuneiform representation of a Canaanite expression, and, as mentioned above, this then brings the Hebrew phrase into the discussion because Hebrew is so closely related to Canaanite, and is even called “Canaanite” in the Hebrew Bible. 5 Moreover, since Horowitz and Oshima already brought up the issue of the relationship between the cuneiform term under discussion and the parallel biblical term, it is reasonable to pursue a discussion of that relationship a bit further.
Language Terms and Resources
It is recognized that Canaanite was closely associated with several later languages/dialects, including Hebrew and Phoenician.
9 The former is represented mainly in the Hebrew Bible, and the latter is first attested epigraphically around 1200 BCE. 10 During the period in question (the late fifteenth century BCE), we still cannot speak of either Hebrew or Phoenician as having emerged from the parent language of Canaanite as separate languages. Thus we must still refer to the presumed mother-tongue of the author of Taanach 2 as Canaanite rather than Phoenician. And in terms of available source material, for Canaanite we may look at the documents in the Tel el-Amarna letters,
11 which may be attributed to Canaanite scribes, as well as the writings found in the area of Canaan.
12 For an examination of Hebrew parallels, the Hebrew Bible will suffice; and for a look at the later developments in other languages/dialects deriving from Canaanite, Phoenician inscriptions found in volumes such as Donner/Röllig (2002) or the CIS
13 can be helpful.
An Analysis of EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu
At first blush, the translation of EN as “Lord” seems reasonable. Certainly, the Sumerogram EN does stand for “lord.” But in this peculiar social, linguistic and religious milieu, is that the only reasonable rendering? If we posit that this document was written against the background of Canaanite religion, by a scribe whose mother-tongue was Canaanite, then we might want to first ascertain what gods were most likely to be invoked to guard the life of a notable such as Talwašur. In this regard, Niehr states that if we want to understand the Syro-Canaanite religion of the second millennium BCE, we have to start with the religion of Ugarit. 14
Originally, the highest position in the Ugaritic pantheon was occupied by El, who was credited with creation, but Baᶜal was the god who was closer to men. However, over time the position of El began to weaken, and Baᶜal gained in prominence. Niehr attributes this to an agrarian component in Ugarit, which promoted Baᶜal. And there was also the myth of Baᶜal's victory over the sea god, Yammu, which further weakened El, because Yammu had been a favorite of El.
15 Furthermore, in the Late Bronze Age there was a crisis in polytheism in Ugarit, and also in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and particularly during the Amarna period. 16 This affected the panthea of the Syrian-Canaanite city-states as well, with El continuing to lose prominence; so that by the Amarna period, the theophoric element ilu still appeared in personal names, but the god El himself is no longer mentioned, and Baᶜal is the highest god.
17 And because the basic meaning of Baᶜal is also “lord,” we must consider the likelihood that the Sumerogram EN in our inscription actually refers to the specific deity, viz. Baᶜal. It should not surprise us, therefore, when Eva von Dassow, in creating a Canaanite “normalization” of a cuneiform text written by a presumed Canaanite scribe, renders EN-ia as baᶜliya.
18 Thus, we must consider the possibility that a similar rendering would be appropriate for our own text.
In addition to the use of EN for Baᶜal, it can also be shown with a fair amount of certainty that the designation dIM is understood as Baᶜal in Canaan of the Amarna age. This conclusion rests on the following: First, in Taanach 5, line 3 we read dIM ZI-ta-ka li-iṣ-ṣur “May the Storm God guard your life.” 19 In his commentary to that line Horowitz notes that “The DN was most likely realized as Baᶜal at this time and place . . .” Secondly, as he notes elsewhere, that the name mut-dIMal occurs at Ugarit, and a corresponding name occurs in EA 255-256, which contain the name of Mut-Baᶜlu (mu-ut-ba-ah-lum, “Man of Baᶜal”). And this use of Baᶜal for eIM represents a departure from the name (H)addu used in the Mesopotamian cuneiform texts. 20 This brings us to the fact that Prof. Horowitz himself gives us the equation Baᶜal = EN = dIM. 21
The second part of the expression is more difficult. The term DINGIR.MEŠ is normally rendered “gods” because MEŠ is the marker for plurality. However, the associated verb is in the singular. Is this unusual? Apparently not. Already in 1915 J. A. Knudtzon remarked:
“Beachte hier wie 97, 3 und 189 Rs. 14 die Pluralform ilānunu u. zw. Mit dem Verbum in Sg. Konstruiert. In allen diesen Fällen bezieht sich die Bezeichnung ilānu nicht etwa auf den König, wie in vielen Stadtkönig-Briefen an den Pharao (s. die Stellen im Glossar), sondern auf die Gottheit selbst. Hier liegt ein Pluralis amplitudinis vor in genauer Parallele zu dem Gebrauch des hebr. אלהים. Eine noch schlagendere Parallele dazu bietet der Gebrauch des Plurals ilānu als Determinativ bei den Gottesnamen ilānumitraššil, ilānuuru(w)naššil neben iluindar(a) in den Boghazköi-Texten, die H. Winckler, Vorl. Nachr. S. 51 mitgeteilt hat. Zur ganzen Frage vgl. vor allem Böhl § 23 e-f.” 22
Indeed, the line to which he refers (EA 96:4)23 is very much like the one from Taanach 1 quoted above, except that in EA 96 the verb is singular: ilānunu / šu-lum-ka šu-lum bîti-ka / li-iš-al "May the deity (singular) inquire concerning the welfare of you and your household."
It is particularly important to note that the phonetic complement -nu at the end of DINGIR.MEŠ-nu is very important, because it demonstrates that the word is to be read ilānu, meaning that it is a noun in the nominative case – not in an oblique case. The significance of this will be discussed further below in conjunction with the Hebrew term יהוה אלהים.
Other writers have spoken about this phenomenon of a singular verb with the plural form of a noun (particularly in relation to deities). For example, Burnett spoke of it, and believed it was a usage that radiated from the Phoenician coast. 24
Finally, we should note that Krahmalkov discusses the existence in Phoenician of plural nouns with singular meanings, and gives the example of ᵓDN ᵓadon, “lord,” but also ᵓDNM ᵓadonim “The Lord” in the personal name in CIS i 4551.7, 5274.4. He compares this with the term ᵓadonim qasheh "a hard master” in Isaiah 19:4. 25 Another example he gives, which includes the name Baᶜal, is found in personal name Y B'LYM “where is Baᶜal?” in CIS: 135.5. This is a plural form with singular meaning that is imitated in Judges 2:11, 3:7; 8:31; I S 7:4; 12:10 etc. = הבעלים (habaᶜalīm). 26
Thus, we may tentatively posit a rendering for EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu of “Baᶜal, the god,” or something similar.
The Term יהוה אלהים
Parke-Taylor claimed that interest in this term goes back to Jean Astruc in 1753. 27 However, it actually goes back much further. Indeed, the medieval Bible commentator, Rashi 28 commented on it in a note to Genesis 2:5.
ה' א-להים : ה' הוא שמו י אלהים שהוא שליט ושופט על כל העולם וכן פירוש זה בכ”מ לפי פשוטו ה' שהוא אלהים : “H[ashem] Elohim: H[ashem (=yhwh)] is his name, (but) Y[HWH] Elohim (means) that he is the ruler and judge over the entire world, and therefore the meaning of this everywhere – according to its plain sense – is that H[ashem (=yhwh)] is Elohim (ruler and judge)”
Rashi thus seems to indicate that the addition of ᵓelohīm to the name yhwh supplies a descriptive title, indicating the regency of yhwh over his creation.
As concerns the term ᵓelohīm, in more recent research, Burnett complained that the amount of research on ᵓelohīm is meager: “The only existing monographic study of the divine title ᵓelohīm was published a century ago and exerted no lasting influence on scholarship.”
29 Fortunately, things may not be as dire as that. A monograph is not necessarily the appropriate format for this subject, and there have been a number of shorter works by reputable writers on this subject, and at least three important facts are already accepted. First, it is generally recognized that ᵓelohīm is a plural form, and as such, is occasionally used as a plural form when referring to foreign gods. Examples of this include Ex. 18:11 עתה ידעתי כי גדול יהוה מכל האלהים, “Now I know that YHWH is greater than all (other) gods,” or Ex. 22:19 זבח לאלהים . . . “whoever sacrifices to (other) gods . . .”
Secondly, there is no dispute over the fact that ᵓelohīm, although plural in form, functions as a singular noun when referring to the God of Israel. However, it is also recognized that in this function, it occasionally is used with the definite article, e.g. Deut. 4:35 . . . יהוה הוא האלהים אין עוד מלבדו . . “YHWH is (the) God, (and) there is none beside him,” or I Kings 18:24וקראתם בשם אלהיכם ואני אקרא בשם יהוה והיה האלהים אשר יענה באש הוא האלהים ויען כל העם ויאמרו טוב הדבר ”And you will call upon your god 30 and I will call upon YHWH, and the God who answers with fire, he will be the God. And all the people answered and said, The thing is good.” In this instance, the dispute is over which God will be supreme. Elijah does not try to dispute the existence of Baal; he merely asserts that Baal is not the supreme god as his antagonists believe, hence the purpose of the contest. This actually fits nicely with Rashi's definition of ᵓelohīm as connoting a deity who is the ruler and judge over all the earth, and therefore the supreme deity.
The third use of ᵓelohīm that is not in dispute (or, at least should not be in dispute) is the fact that ᵓelohīm is also used in the Bible to refer to single foreign deities. This was already apparent in I Sam. 18:24 cited above, but an even clearer example of this is in I Sam 5:7 ויראו אנשי אשדוד כי כן ואמרו לא ישב ארון אלהי ישראל עמנו כי קשתה ידו עלינו ועל דעון אלהינו "And the people of Ashdod saw how it was, and they said, 'the ark of the God of Israel will not stay with us, for his hand has been harsh upon us and upon Dagon,
31 our god.'” Another example is in Judges 11:24, where Chemosh,
32 is the deity, and in that verse, not only does the writer not deny the existence of the pagan deity (similar to Elijah in the contest with the prophets of Baal mentioned above), but he seems indeed to actually confirm the existence of Chemosh, by mentioning that it was Chemosh who gave them their inheritance. Once again, the Israelite contention seems to be merely that YHWH is supreme, without going on to claim that no other gods even exist.
Interestingly, ᵓelohīm is not used only of male deities, it can also refer to a goddess, as in I Kings 11:33 יען אשר עזבוני וישתחוו לעשתרת אלהי צדנין לכמוש אלהי מואב ולמלכם אלהי בני עמון "Because they have forsaken me, and worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh, the god of Moab, and Milcom, the god of the Ammonites . . .” In this example, it appears that אלהים was considered the proper term to refer to the chief deities of each of three nations.
Finally, there are uses of ᵓelohīm for which no general consensus exists concerning the correct interpretation. These are instances in which it has been claimed that the term refers to beings other than the supreme God. One such instance is Ex. 21:6 where a slave's master brings him to the ᵓelohīm as part of ceremony which also includes boring a hole in his ear to mark him as a permanent slave. Here, the term has often been interpreted as “judges,” but it seems more likely that ᵓelohīm would refer to human representatives of God, and this is indicated in the LXX which says in this verse that the slave should be brought to the “tribunal of God.” Moreover, this argument would seem to be strengthened by the appointment of Moses as an ᵓelohīm to Pharaoh in Exod. 7:1. Here it is clear that Moses has authority delegated from God to deliver the judgments of God to Pharaoh and his people, and to show that he has power from God over earthly matters in the sense of rulership and even judgment (thus in accordance with Rashi's definition of ᵓelohīm).
Another confusing use of ᵓelohīm is in Ps. 82:1 where it appears twice, and seems to have two different meanings.
אלהים נצב בעדת אל בקרב אלהים אשפט
ᵓelohīm stands in the congregation of El and pronounces judgment among the ᵓelohīm.
If we posit that El is the proper name of the most high God (in accordance with what we know about the original Canaanite pantheon),
33 and that ᵓelohīm is a title implying rulership, then we may understand that the ruling deity is standing in the congregation of those who worship him under the name of El, and that would suggest that the second occurrence of ᵓelohīm in this verse must refer to those who are also present in that congregation, and who have some special relationship with him,
34 perhaps because he has delegated authority to them. Furthermore, if that is the case, then the second verse, in which he admonishes them for rendering unrighteous judgments becomes quite understandable as well. Similarly, the term ᵓelohīm as it then occurs in verse 6 of this Psalm must refer to those who have received his authority to judge or perform other priestly functions for him.
35 Therefore verse 1 may be understood as:
“The ruling deity stands in the midst of his worshipers and renders judgment among those to whom he has delegated authority.”
And in a similar vein, we may also consider the term benei haᵓelohīm which appears in several loci, such as Job 1:6 and Gen. 6:2. This term is sometimes translated as “angels,” but we may note that in the parallel term in Ugaritic, bn ᵓil / bin ᵓili / and bn ᵓilm / bin ᵓili-ma refers to members of the family of the supreme god, Il, whether human or divine. 36 And considering the context, there is no good reason not to assume that this definition could also be used for the Hebrew occurrences.
So, while it may be true that no real consensus was ever reached regarding the use ᵓelohīm in all instances, we may posit that the term seems to embody the connotation of supreme power and authority, and in that sense is used to designate two related things:
1) the deity par excellence of any nation's pantheon, and
2) other beings (whether celestial or terrestrial) to whom is delegated authority from that supreme ruler. 37
Returning to the term yhwh ᵓelohīm, the main bone of contention is the function of the word YHWH. This has been the subject of numerous articles over the years, and no consensus was ever reached, 38 even though many writers seem to have believed that they were in possession of the definitive explanation of the term.
Many of the attempts to understand the name yhwh rested upon the assumption that it is a verbal form. Indeed, in 1909 Paul Haupt claimed that yhwh was a hif'il (causative) from the Hebrew root ywh, “to be.” 39 And it is not surprising that a few years later Albright, himself, confirmed that yhwh must be a causative, corresponding to the Late Hebrew mehawweh, “he who causes to be, brings into existence.” 40 Many years later, Albright maintained his argument that yhwh is a causative, and that while the hif'il form has disappeared from classical Hebrew, the pa'el and af'el (causative) forms of it are well attested in Aramaic, and compares this to Phoenician kūn, which has a causative form, as well as the Akkadian bašû which has the causative form šubšû. 41 He further pointed out that there was an Amorite personal name Yahwī-il, which was common in Old Babylonian transcriptions. 42
David Noel Freedman also joined the chorus of voices claiming that yhwh was a hif'il 3rd masc. singular form, and that it means “He causes to be, he brings into existence, he brings to pass, he creates.”
43 He also made this interesting statement: “From Exod. 6 and 14, it is clear that the proper subject of the verb yahweh is ᵓēl. Thus the name is structurally identical with the numerous ᵓēl names of the 2nd millennium, which often appear as hypocoristica like yahweh itself. The continued use of the designation El throughout the Bible (though limited largely to poetry), despite its obvious Canaanite associations, shows that the name was deeply rooted in Israelite tradition.”
44 This is perhaps significant as relates to the verse treated above (Ps. 82:1).
Cross also joined that same chorus stating that: “The accumulated evidence thus strongly supports the view that the name Yahweh is a causative imperfect of the Canaanite-Proto-Hebrew verb hwy, “to be.” And, as an example of this, he translates the term יהוה צבאות (yhwh ṣebaᵓōt) as “he creates the (divine) hosts.” 45
Against this view, Halpern argues that the verb root הוי (hwy) never had a causative form.46 While it is true that no such form can be demonstrated in the Hebrew Bible, this assertion may nevertheless be the grammatical equivalent of an argumentum ex silencio. In any case, the issue of whether or not yhwh was originally a verbal form may not be the main question. Even a verb may become a proper name and thereby lose its verbal force. So, the question needs to be more clearly defined as whether or not yhwh still has verbal force in as least some terms or phrases as used in the Hebrew Bible. In particular, we are interested in the function of yhwh in the term yhwh ᵓelohīm, for this is the term that seems to parallel EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu. In this regard, Halpern points out that the use of yhwh in the term yhwh ᵓelohīm can be analyzed grammatically in three possible ways: 1) as a having verbal force, 2) as an appositive, and 3) as a genitival phrase. 47
At this point we need to state that while it is possible that the Hebrew term and the cuneiform term did not necessarily follow the same route or rules of development, nevertheless, if we can find a solution that would fit the instances of both the Hebrew term and the cuneiform term (which is presumably a representation of Canaanite usage), then such a solution would be the one most likely to be accurate. In line with that reasoning, let us now continue the investigation by eliminating the genitival relationship from our working hypothesis, because the phonetic complement in the cuneiform expression demonstrates that the word intended was ilānū, and this is clearly the nominative case, thus eliminating the possibility of a genitival relationship for bēlu (if we wish to use the Akkadian equivalent for the Sumerogram EN) or baᶜal (if we wish to use the Canaanite equivalent for EN).
48 For that reason, we now need to consider the two remaining possibilities.
If we believe, along with the authors noted above, that yhwh has verbal force, then the phrase yhwh ᵓelohīm would have to be translated as “He who creates gods” or something similar. In view of the meanings possible for ᵓelohīm noted above, this would not be impossible, However, if we are to prefer a solution that would fit both the Hebrew and the cuneiform terms, then we have to note that this view of yhwh as a transitive (causative) verb must also be rejected, because the nominative nature of ilānu in the cuneiform eliminates the possibility that it is a direct object (which would require the oblique form ilāni, as would a genitival construction).
This leaves us with only one possibility: the expression must be appositional.
A Suggested Resolution
If the only possible grammatical explanation which will explain both the Hebrew and the cuneiform expressions under investigation is appositional, then we may translate those expressions in some sense similar to the following:
EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu = Baᶜal, the god (i.e. the ruling deity)
יהוה אלהים/yhwh ᵓelohīm = YHWH, the God (i.e. the ruling deity) 49
These translations may be a bit simplistic, because in the minds of the ancient Canaanites or Hebrews, the terms no doubt connoted many attributes of the ruling deity simultaneously: ruler, judge, worker of miracles, protector of their people etc. In any case, the first element in each term must be considered a proper name (avoiding euphemisms on the Hebrew side), and the second element should be recognized as a title signifying exalted divine attributes. Other translations might therefore be acceptable if they remain within the limits of these guidelines, and thereby remain faithful to the concepts intended to be conveyed by the original speakers/writers. But that means that the translation of “Lord God” is not tenable for either of the expressions which we have examined, i.e. neither the cuneiform EN DINGIR.MEŠ-nu nor the Hebrew יהוה אלהים/yhwh ᵓelohīm.