Mi Chamocha? Who is like you, God?: A look at El, Ba'al and Asherah in Ancient Israel

Most Jews assume our tradition has always viewed God the same way. However, it took a while for God to become the God we know in the Torah. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests ancient Israelites worshiped many deities. It took a while for our religion to become "monotheistic," meaning only believing in one God existing. Though Jews usually refer to God as "Adonai," G-d has many names in the Torah. The following are some examples of God's various names in the Tanach.

(א) בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
(1) When God began to create heaven and earth—

The first reference to God in the Torah is in the very first sentence. Here, God is referred to as "Elohim." Even though this name is technically plural, meaning "gods," tradition interprets it as singular.

(ב) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (ג) וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
(2) God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. (3) I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יהוה.

This passage in the Torah explains that, according to tradition, the matriarchs and patriarchs referred to God as "El Shaddai." It was only later that God is referred to by the tetragrammaton, G-d's four-letter name, yod-hay-vav-hay, which we pronounce as "Adonai."

(ג) וְאֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ יְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֹֽתְךָ֔ וְיַפְרְךָ֖ וְיַרְבֶּ֑ךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ לִקְהַ֥ל עַמִּֽים׃
(3) May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.

The name "El Shaddai" is made up of two names: "El" and "Shaddai". In the Torah, there are many names for God which begin with the term "El," followed by another term. The following are examples of different names for God as "El- ...".

"El" names for God found in Tanach

Fig 1. Scholars believe the term "El" referred to an ancient deity worshiped by the Canaanites (Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2002. p. 2). Eventually, the term "El" came to refer to the Israelite God, just as yod-hay-vav-hay did.

(ה) לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֺ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י׃

(5) You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,

Term for God: "El Kana", God of Zeal/Passion

(כ) וּבָרוּךְ֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־מִגֵּ֥ן צָרֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל׃

(20) And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Term for God: "El Elyon", God Most High

(לג) וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃

(33) [Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Beer-sheba, and invoked there the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

Term for God: "El Olam", Everlasting God

(ז) וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ וַיִּקְרָא֙ לַמָּק֔וֹם אֵ֖ל בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל כִּ֣י שָׁ֗ם נִגְל֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בְּבָרְח֖וֹ מִפְּנֵ֥י אָחִֽיו׃

(7) There he built an altar and named the site El Beit El, for it was there that God had revealed Himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

Term for God: "El Beit-El", God of {lit. "House of God"} Beit-El.

(יג) וַתִּקְרָ֤א שֵׁם־יְהוָה֙ הַדֹּבֵ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֗ה הֲגַ֥ם הֲלֹ֛ם רָאִ֖יתִי אַחֲרֵ֥י רֹאִֽי׃

(13) And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!”

Term for God: "El Ro'i", explained as meaning "God saw me."

(מו) וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֔וּ כָּֽל־בַּעֲלֵ֖י מִֽגְדַּל־שְׁכֶ֑ם וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־צְרִ֔יחַ בֵּ֖ית אֵ֥ל בְּרִֽית׃

(46) When all the citizens of the Tower of Shechem learned of this, they went into the tunnel of the temple of El Brit.

Term for God: "El Brit", God of the Covenant

(ו) וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה ׀ עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀

(6) The LORD passed before him and proclaimed: “The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness,

Term for God: "El Rachum", Merciful God; Tetragrammaton is also used.

(כ) וַיַּצֶּב־שָׁ֖ם מִזְבֵּ֑חַ וַיִּ֨קְרָא־ל֔וֹ אֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס)

(20) He set up an altar there, and called it El-elohe-yisrael.

Term for God: "El-elohei-yisrael," El, the God of Israel

References to Ba'al and Ashera in the Tanach

Fig 2. An ancient statue of the Canaanite god, Baal.

In addition to "El", Canaanites worshiped a deity called Ba'al and his consort called Ashera. As with the term "El", scholars are uncertain whether the term Ba'al or Ashera was understood to be a name or an epithet. For instance, Ba'al Peor could mean the deity Ba'al has a shrine in the area called Peor. But if the term Ba'al were an epithet, or title, then Ba'al Peor would mean the deity of Peor. The same can be said for Ashera. Either Ashera was understood to be a single goddess named Ashera, or Ashera was a general term for female goddesses in Canaan.

(מא) וַיְהִ֣י בַבֹּ֔קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח בָּלָק֙ אֶת־בִּלְעָ֔ם וַֽיַּעֲלֵ֖הוּ בָּמ֣וֹת בָּ֑עַל וַיַּ֥רְא מִשָּׁ֖ם קְצֵ֥ה הָעָֽם׃
(41) In the morning Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth-baal. From there he could see a portion of the people.

Here, the term "Bamot Ba'al" refers to a sacrificial altar to Ba'al. Here, "Ba'al" appears to be the name of a specific Canaanite god with that name.

(כא) וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלִיָּ֜הוּ אֶל־כָּל־הָעָ֗ם וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ עַד־מָתַ֞י אַתֶּ֣ם פֹּסְחִים֮ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַסְּעִפִּים֒ אִם־יְהוָ֤ה הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ לְכ֣וּ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְאִם־הַבַּ֖עַל לְכ֣וּ אַחֲרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־עָנ֥וּ הָעָ֛ם אֹת֖וֹ דָּבָֽר׃

(21) Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!” But the people answered him not a word.

In this passage, the prophet Elijah chastises the people of Israel, telling them to choose between Adonai, or yod-hay-vav-hay, and Ba'al. Again, Ba'al appears to be the deity's name. In Hebrew, though, it is "Ha-Ba'al", so it still could be "the Canaanite god."

(ג) וַיִּצָּ֥מֶד יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְבַ֣עַל פְּע֑וֹר וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֥ף יְהוָ֖ה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

(3) Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-Peor, and the LORD was incensed with Israel.

In this passage, the term "Baal-Peor" appears to be the name of a particular deity. The question is whether the term Baal is an epithet, or title, here. For instance, is this the baal (god) of the area called Peor? Or is this a different deity altogether called Baal-Peor? Or this the deity Baal? How did the people who read this at the time it was written understand it?

(לג) וַיְהִ֗י כַּֽאֲשֶׁר֙ מֵ֣ת גִּדְע֔וֹן וַיָּשׁ֙וּבוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיִּזְנ֖וּ אַחֲרֵ֣י הַבְּעָלִ֑ים וַיָּשִׂ֧ימוּ לָהֶ֛ם בַּ֥עַל בְּרִ֖ית לֵאלֹהִֽים׃

(33) After Gideon died, the Israelites again went astray after the Baalim, and they adopted Baal-Brit as a god.

Here, the term "baal" is pluralized to "baalim," meaning Canaanite gods. So in this passage, the term "baal" is a general term. However, the Israelites are said here to have turned to a specific deity named "Baal-Brit," meaning "god of the covenant" (notice it is the same name used to refer to the Israelite God, only that was "El Brit").

Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon definition for Ashera: "a. a Canaanitish goddess of fortune & happiness; ... b. a symbol of this goddess, a sacred tree or pole set up near an altar"

(Brown, Francis, Edward Robinson, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, and Wilhelm Gesenius. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament: With an Appendix, Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Clarendon Press, 1974. p. 81)

Fig. 3. Asherah depicted as a goddess. It is still debated as to whether inscriptions mentioning Asherah mean for her to be a particular deity or a common noun. For instance, the term Asherah may have referred to a shrine for any particular deity (Fox, Nili. "Concepts of God in Israel and the Question of Monotheism". Beckman, Gary M., and Theodore Joseph Lewis. Text, Artifact, and Image Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion. Brown Judaic Studies, 2006. p. 335)

(יג) כִּ֤י אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָם֙ תִּתֹּצ֔וּן וְאֶת־מַצֵּבֹתָ֖ם תְּשַׁבֵּר֑וּן וְאֶת־אֲשֵׁרָ֖יו תִּכְרֹתֽוּן׃

(13) No, you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts;

In this passage, the term "Ashera" is a very general term referring to a sacred post or pole presumably by the Israelites.

(כא) לֹֽא־תִטַּ֥ע לְךָ֛ אֲשֵׁרָ֖ה כָּל־עֵ֑ץ אֵ֗צֶל מִזְבַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃ (ס)

(21) You shall not plant an ashera of any kind of tree beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make—

In this passage, the term "ashera" seems to refer to a tree of some sort. It does not mention erected "asherot" but planted ones.

Fig. 3. A depiction found in Kuntillet Arjud with the inscription "YHVH and his Asherah". It is believed, then, that Asherah was thought to be a consort of the High God YHVH. It was also believed that Asherah was the consort of the god El which was written in Ugaritic literature (John Day, ABD 1:483-87)

(ז) וַיָּ֕שֶׂם אֶת־פֶּ֥סֶל הָאֲשֵׁרָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה בַּבַּ֗יִת אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־דָּוִד֙ וְאֶל־שְׁלֹמֹ֣ה בְנ֔וֹ בַּבַּ֨יִת הַזֶּ֜ה וּבִירוּשָׁלִַ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר בָּחַ֙רְתִּי֙ מִכֹּל֙ שִׁבְטֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אָשִׂ֥ים אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י לְעוֹלָֽם׃
(7) The sculptured image of Asherah that he made he placed in the House concerning which the LORD had said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this House and in Jerusalem, which I chose out of all the tribes of Israel, I will establish My name forever.

A Jewish king, Menasseh, erected a statue of Asherah in the Temple in Jerusalem, raising the question of whether there was more Asherah worship than the Bible admits.

(ז) וַיִּתֹּץ֙ אֶת־בָּתֵּ֣י הַקְּדֵשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית יְהוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר הַנָּשִׁ֗ים אֹרְג֥וֹת שָׁ֛ם בָּתִּ֖ים לָאֲשֵׁרָֽה׃
(7) He tore down the cubicles of the male prostitutes in the House of the LORD, at the place where the women wove coverings for Asherah.

Presumably Jewish women even wove coverings for the image/statue of Asherah. (See Fox, Nili. "Concepts of God in Israel and the Question of Monotheism". Beckman, Gary M., and Theodore Joseph Lewis. Text, Artifact, and Image Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion. Brown Judaic Studies, 2006. p. 335)

Summary: Though Ancient Israelites most likely worshiped El, Ba'al (or ba'alim), Asherah (or asherot/asherim), and YHVH, the Torah reshaped the narrative. The Jewish tradition in the Torah combined El and YHVH while alienating and forbidding Ba'al and Asherah.