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The Second Coming of Saturn Part 12: Bull El

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We’re moving through the religions of the ancient world to trace the ancient god called “Shemihazah,” “Kumarbi,” and many other names in roughly chronological order. We began with the Watchers on Mount Hermon and followed, perhaps surprisingly, with the Hurrian god called “Kumarbi.” You might think that we would move next to the religion of Sumer, which, until the recent discoveries at places like Urkesh, Tell Brak, and Hamoukar, was believed to be where urban civilization began.

Until recently, you would have been correct. But instead, we’re looking west, at civilization along the Mediterranean coast where the father of the gods was called El.

Figurine of Canaanite god El found at Megiddo

El was the creator-god of the Canaanite pantheon and supreme among the gods, at least in name. While he played an active role in Canaanite religion, he appeared to be rather disinterested in running the show. He took no part in settling the matter of who’d take his place as king of the gods. (The question of why El was replaced at the head of the pantheon is not addressed in any of the Ugaritic texts found thus far.) The Baal Cycle describes the storm-god’s violent struggle for kingship with the god of death, Mot, and the chaos-god of the sea, Yamm, both of whom were described in Ugaritic texts as “beloved of El.”[1]

It’s not a coincidence that the conflict between Baal, Yamm, and Mot is echoed by the tension between the Greek gods of storm, sea, and underworld, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. It’s more evidence that the religions of Greece and Rome borrowed heavily from the Semitic people of the Near East.

El is mentioned more than five hundred times in the Ugaritic texts,[2] where he is portrayed as an old god, with the gray hair of his beard a sign of wisdom as well as age. Like Kumarbi, he’s depicted as the father of the gods, but El was also credited with the creation of humanity.[3] A common epithet of the god, Ṯôr ʿIl, “Bull El,” is thought to refer to El’s power and dignity—and possibly his generative powers, which are referred to fairly often.[4]

We can’t miss the fact that the name of “El” was also a noun, the generic word meaning “god” in Ugaritic and Hebrew and the root behind elohim. For that reason, many scholars conclude that El and Yahweh were the same deity. And, to be fair, God did call Himself “El” for a long time:

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord [YHWH]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them. (Exodus 6:2–3, content in brackets added)

But there are too many differences between El and Yahweh to confuse the two. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is an active warrior god, remembered for defeating Leviathan, riding on the clouds (a description of the storm-god repurposed from the Baal Cycle), and fighting for Israel against its enemies.

El, on the other hand…

El summoned his drinking-companions;
El took his seat in his feasting house.
He drank wine to satiety,
new wine until intoxication.

El went off to his house;
he stumbled off towards his dwelling;
Thukamun and Shanim supported him.

A creeping monster approached him,
with horns and tail!

He floundered in his (own) faeces and urine:
El fell down as though dead;
El was like those who go down into the underworld.[5]

That is not the God of the Bible. Yet there were those in Israel who wanted to return to the worship of the old god, especially after the division of Israel and Judah during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. In the book of Hosea, the prophet recalled the idolatry of Jeroboam, the man who led the rebellion of the northern tribes:

I have spurned your calf, O Samaria.
My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
For it is from Israel;
a craftsman made it;
it is not God.
The calf of Samaria
shall be broken to pieces. (Hosea 8:5–6, emphasis added)

This is Hosea’s polemic against the golden calf idols set up by Jeroboam, who led the rebellion of the northern tribes against Rehoboam. The phrase, “For it is from Israel,” comes from the Masoretic Hebrew text, kî miyyiśrāʾēl. The literal reading of the Hebrew is the clunky phrase, “For from Israel.”[6] Frankly, that doesn’t make sense.

But separating the characters differently yields kî mî šōr ʾēl, which changes verse 6 to this:

For who is Bull El?
a craftsman made it;
it is not God.
The calf of Samaria
shall be broken to pieces.[7] (Hosea 8:6, modified; emphasis added)

That’s a huge difference! Jeroboam may have set up worship sites at Bethel and Dan to rival the Temple for political reasons. If the northern tribes continued to travel to Jerusalem for the feasts as required by the Law, they might switch their loyalty back to the House of David. Apparently, Jeroboam felt that reestablishing the worship of El, or adopting it from the pagan neighbors of the Israelites, was close enough to do the trick. Hence, the golden calves.

El occupied the same place in the Canaanite cosmic hierarchy as Kumarbi did for the Hurrians. So, by extension, we can likewise identify El as Shemihazah, leader of the rebellious Watchers on Mount Hermon. By erecting the golden calves, Jeroboam drew the northern tribes into the worship of a god whose rebellion introduced the pre-Flood world to the occult knowledge that Babylon was so proud of preserving. This crossed a big red line, and God made it immediately clear that it was unacceptable:

You have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back, therefore behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. (1 Kings 14:9–10)

By reading “Bull El” in Hosea 8:6 instead of “Israel,” the verse becomes a polemic directed not just at the idols of Jeroboam, but against the creator-god of the Canaanites. It fits the context of the passage better than the common English translation.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t the only place in the Bible where that substitution may come closer to the Hebrew original. Here’s the King James translation of Deuteronomy 32:8:

When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:8, KJV, emphasis added)

Now, consider this alternative for the second half of the verse:

The epithet has also been identified recently in a perceptive study of Deuteronomy 32:8 by Joosten, in which he proposed a similar consonantal regrouping in the expression bny yśrʾl (bĕnê yiśrāʾēl) to read (bĕnê šōr ʾēl). Since LXX [the Septuagint translation] (ἀγγέλων θεοῶ, some [manuscripts] υἱων θεοῶ), and one Qumran text, 4QDeutj (lmspr bny ʾlhym), already read a divine reference here, rather than the “Israel” of MT [the Masoretic Hebrew text], this proposal has much to commend it:

yaṣṣēb gĕbulōt ʿammîmHe set up the boundaries of the nations
misparbĕnê šōr ʾēlin accordance with the number of the sons of Bull El.[8] (Emphasis added)

Most English translations agree with the King James Bible and render Deuteronomy 32:8, “the number of the sons of Israel.” A few, such as the ESV, follow the Septuagint (“angels of God” or “divine sons”) and the text of Deuteronomy found among the Dead Sea scrolls (“sons of Elohim”). What Simon and Nicolas Wyatt propose is reading the Hebrew as “sons of Bull El” instead at the end of the verse. And it fits.

That may sound borderline heretical, like we’re playing fast and loose with the text. But note: In the Genesis 10 Table of Nations, there are seventy names, and in Canaanite religious texts, El had seventy sons.[9] That, dear reader, is not a coincidence. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, God placed lesser elohim over the nations after the Tower of Babel incident.

Were there exactly seventy tribes or nations at the time of Babel? Possibly not. The point is not the specific number seventy, it’s what the number represented:

The Aramaean inscription from Zinjirly of Bir-Rakib concerning of his father Panamuwa notes that Bir-Ṣur from Šam’al’s seventy brothers were killed by an usurper. The Tel-Dan Inscription (line 6) notes that King Hazael slew seventy kings. In the biblical texts, Abimelech slaughtered Gideon’s seventy sons (Judg 9:5–6) and Yehu Ahab’s seventy sons (2 Kgs 10:6–7). In all these instances, the number seventy is symbolic of complete destruction, not one person escaping.[10] (Emphasis added)

In the ancient Near East, “seventy” was another way of saying “the complete set.” Thus, the seventy sons of El on Hermon and the seventy bene ha’elohim of the Bible were the gods of the nations—all of the nations except Israel, which was “the Lord’s portion,” “His allotted heritage.”[11]

Next: Bashan, land of the serpent

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[1] Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel(London; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973) pp. 40, 115.

[2] Wolfgang Herrmann, “El.” In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst Eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd extensively rev. ed. (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999) p. 275.

[3] Cross (1973), op. cit., p. 15.

[4] John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) p. 34.

[5] Wyatt (2002), op. cit., pp. 409–412.

[6] Nicolas Wyatt, “Calf.” In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: 2nd extensively rev. ed. (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), p. 181.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Simon Wyatt and Nicolas Wyatt, “The longue durée in the Beef Business.” In O. Loretz, S. Ribichini, W. G. E. Watson, & J. Zamora (Eds.), Ritual, Religion and Reason (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2013), p. 346.

[9] Ugaritic text KTU 1.4, vi, 46.

[10] Noga Ayali-Darshan, “The Seventy Bulls Sacrificed at Sukkot (Num 29:12–34) in Light of a Ritual Text from Emar (Emar 6, 373).” Vetus Testamentum 65:1 (2015), pp. 7–8.

[11] Deuteronomy 32:8.

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