El (God)

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A singular noun, El (ēl ) is the oldest known name for the deity; it was used in varying forms by almost all Semitic peoples as a proper name for God. The Canaanites are known to have worshiped a god whose name was linked with various local sanctuaries (e.g., El-Bethel). The Patriarchs, who also worshiped El, recognized in Him the one true God identified with elohim and yahweh who revealed Himself in different ways (Gn 28.1022; 33.20; 49.25) and who was the author and guarantor of the promises made to them. The significance of the term, which is the same as the Akkadian ilu, has been sought in a Semitic root yl, meaning "to be powerful."

El is a point of contact between Israel and polytheism. In the Phoenician pantheon described in the texts of ugarit, El appears as the supreme god; he is the father of the gods and lord of heaven, the chief and utterly transcendent one, of moral and benign character. In the Old Testament, El is less frequently associated with particular cultic sites than is baal; his association is mainly with persons. Time and space are not obstacles for Him (in Gn 31.13, He appears to Jacob at great distance from His first appearance). He is different from men and superior to them, and His presence arouses in them feelings of both reverence and awe (Gn 28.17; Nm 23.19; Hos 11.9; Ez 28.2). El is a general component of many names (Gn4.18; 5.12 etc.).

El is used less than the names Yahweh and Elohim to refer to the God of Israel, but in later Psalms [46 (47).3; 49 (50).14] and in Job (48 times), El is used as a poetic archaizing element. The plural form ēlīm is used of angels and of pagan gods [Ps 28 (29).1; 88 (89).7; Ex 15.11]. In English versions El is usually construed to mean "God."

Bibliography: w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (London 1961). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 633635.

[r. t. a. murphy]