I have a question concerning the usage of numerous names for God. I have been reading that Yahweh developed from the word El which was a Canaanite god. In addition El Elyon was a different deity from Yahweh and was a Caananite god in the city of Salem inhabited by the Jebusites. Why would Melchizedek bless Abraham in the name of Elyon? Also I have read that El Shaddai, namely the Shaddai portion is also just another Canaanite god. Lastly the usage of Baali for God is very unusual due to its similarity to Baal which is a Canaanite god. I fear that there are many parallels between Israelite terms for God and actual Canaanite deities. Was this usage a form of disrespect for the Canaanites by using the name of their gods for the Israelite’s God or gods? I am quite confused. Thanks again.


The question of the origin of the different names used for God in the Old Testament is an interesting one. People have used this issue for various purposes, but we should be careful to separate the etymology of a word (the history of how a word came to have its current meaning) and the actual meaning of a word. etymology can lead us in bad directions. The only essential question is what did the word mean to the people using it in the context where they used it. The fact is that the Jews used words for God which came from their culture. What else were they to do? Were they to simply make up a name out of nothing? Should they have called God something like Bill? The Jews used a generic word for a god to name their God. This generic word was el. Therefore, one of the words used for God in the Hebrew Bible is El or Elohim (plural).

Similarly, the word Baal had a generic meaning of “lord.” It should not surprise us, therefore, if God came to be called Baal in certain contexts. To assume that because the Jews used the word Baal for the one true, omnipresent and omnipotent God should not be used to prove that they saw their God as just another of many local gods. This would be circular reasoning. It would be an argument like this. We know that Baal was used as the name for a generic “god”. The Israelites used the word Baal for their God. Therefore this proves that the saw their God as merely a local god.

The Jews also used the word Adonai for the one true God. Somewhat similar to Baal, this world meant “lord” in the context of Canaan in the second millennium BC. As with the use of Baal, we should not assume that they saw the Lord God Adonai as somehow equal to the more generic use of the word adonai.

As for the other name for God used in the Hebrew Bible, Yaweh (YHWH), this name has a very different origin than Adonai, El or Baal. This word, as far as I know, was not used by any other peoples to describe their deities. This is the only word we know that God used as a direct “name” for himself. This word simply means “I am.” Like I already said, no deity was referred to by this name (unlike el, adonai or baal). Apparently, you heard that this word developed from the generic Canaanite word for god El. I am confident that this is not true. The two words have nothing in common. Besides, we know exactly where the word came from. It came to the Jews from Moses. Its use was not an adaption of a generic word for a deity in Canaan.

Many have tried to use the fact that El, Adonai and Baal were generic names for local deities as proof that the Jews considered their God such a local deity. This is a logical fallacy. We should decide how the Jews conceived of their God by reading what they said about their God. Unless scholars can show actual evidence that the Jews ever considered YHWH anything other than the one true, universal Creator of the universe (which they cannot do) we should reject their arguments based on the etymology of the word.

By the way, the same should apply to Muslims. The name of God to the Muslims in the Qu’ran is Allah. It just so happens that one of the gods in Mecca at the time Muhammad was Allah. Some have used this to “prove” that Allah is just a local god who Muhammad turned into the single God of the universe. This charge is unfair. We should let Muhammad tell us how he viewed God, who he happened to call Allah. There is no doubt at all that Muhammad viewed Allah/God as the one true Creator of the universe. Let us not do to Muslims what some unfairly do to the Jewish idea of God.

John Oakes

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