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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words


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'Êl (אֵל, Strong's #410), “god.” This term was the most common general designation of deity in the ancient Near East. While it frequently occurred alone, 'êl was also combined with other words to constitute a compound term for deity, or to identify the nature and functions of the “god” in some manner. Thus the expression “God, the God of Israel” (Gen. 33:20) identified the specific activities of Israel’s God.

In the ancient world, knowledge of a person’s name was believed to give one power over that person. A knowledge of the character and attributes of pagan “gods” was thought to enable the worshipers to manipulate or influence the deities in a more effective way than they could have if the deity’s name remained unknown. To that extent, the vagueness of the term 'êl frustrated persons who hoped to obtain some sort of power over the deity, since the name gave little or no indication of the god’s character. This was particularly true for El, the chief Canaanite god. The ancient Semites stood in mortal dread of the superior powers exercised by the gods and attempted to propitiate them accordingly. They commonly associated deity with the manifestation and use of enormous power. Perhaps this is reflected in the curious Hebrew phrase, “the power ['êl] of my hand” (Gen. 31:29, KJV; RSV, “It is in my power”; cf. Deut. 28:32). Some Hebrew phrases in the Psalms associated 'êl with impressive natural features, such as the cedar trees of Lebanon (Ps. 80:10) or mountains (Ps. 36:6). In these instances, 'êl conveys a clear impression of grandeur or majesty.

Names with 'êl as one of their components were common in the Near East in the second millennium B.C. The names Methusael (Gen. 4:18) and Ishmael (Gen. 16:11) come from a very early period. In the Mosaic period, 'êl was synonymous with the Lord who delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and made them victorious in battle (Num. 24:8). This tradition of the Hebrew 'êl as a “God” who revealed Himself in power and entered into a covenant relationship with His people was prominent in both poetry (Ps. 7:11; 85:8) and prophecy (Isa. 43:12; 46:9). The name of 'êl was commonly used by the Israelites to denote supernatural provision or power. This was both normal and legitimate, since the covenant between “God” and Israel assured an obedient and holy people that the creative forces of the universe would sustain and protect at all times. Equally, if they became disobedient and apostate, these same forces would punish them severely.

‘Ĕlâhh (אֱלָהּ, Strong's #426), “god.” This Aramaic word is the equivalent of the Hebrew ĕloâh. It is a general term for “God” in the Aramaic passages of the Old Testament, and it is a cognate form of the word ’allah the designation of deity used by the Arabs. The word was used widely in the Book of Ezra, occurring no fewer than 43 times between Ezra 4:24 and 7:26. On each occasion, the reference is to the “God” of the Jewish people, whether the speaker or writer was himself Jewish or not. Thus the governor of the province “Beyond the River” (i.e., west of the river Euphrates) spoke to king Darius of the “house of the great God” (Ezra 5:8). So also Cyrus instructed Sheshbazzar, the governor, that the “house of God be builded” in Jerusalem (Ezra 5:15).

While the Persians were certainly not worshipers of the “God” of Israel, they accorded Him the dignity that befitted a “God of heaven” (Ezra 6:10). This was done partly through superstition; but the pluralistic nature of the newly-won Persian empire also required them to honor the gods of conquered peoples, in the interests of peace and social harmony. When Ezra himself used the word ĕlâhh, he frequently specified the God of the Jews. Thus he spoke of the “God of Israel” (5:1; 6:14), the “God of heaven” (5:12; 6:9) and “God of Jerusalem” (7:19); he also associated “God” with His house in Jerusalem (5:17; 6:3). In the decree of Artaxerxes, Ezra was described as “the priest, the scribe of the God of heaven” (7:12, 21). This designation would have sounded strange coming from a pagan Persian ruler, had it not been for the policy of religious toleration exercised by the Achaemenid regime. Elsewhere in Ezra, ĕlâhh is associated with the temple, both when it was about to be rebuilt (5:2, 13) and as a finished edifice, consecrated for divine worship (6:16).

In the only verse in the Book of Jeremiah that was written in Aramaic (10:11), the word ĕlâhh appears in plural form to describe “gods” that had not participated in the creation of the universe. Although such false “gods” were being worshiped by pagan nations (and perhaps worshiped by some of the Hebrews who were in exile in Babylonia), these deities would ultimately perish because they were not eternal in nature.

In the Book of Daniel, ĕlâhh was used both of heathen “gods” and the one true “God” of heaven. The Chaldean priests told Nebuchadnezzar: “And it is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can show it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Dan. 2:11). The Chaldeans referred to such “gods” when reporting that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to participate in idol worship on the plain of Dura (Dan. 3:12). The “gods” were enumerated by Daniel when he condemned Nebuchadnezzar’s neglect of the worship of Israel’s one true “God” (Dan. 5:23). In Dan. 3:25, the word refers to a divine being or messenger sent to protect the three Hebrews (Dan. 3:28). In Dan. 4:8-9, 18; and 5:11, the phrase “the spirit of the holy gods” appears (KJV, RSV, NEB, NIV). Elsewhere the references to ĕlâhh are to the living “God” whom Daniel worshiped.

‘Ĕlôahh (אֱלֹהַּ, Strong's #433), “god.” This Hebrew name for “God” corresponds to the Aramaic ĕlâhh and the Ugaritic il (or, if denoting a goddess, ilt). The origin of the term is unknown, and it is used rarely in Scripture as a designation of deity. Indeed, its distribution throughout the various books of the Bible is curiously uneven. Ĕlôahh occurs 40 times in the Book of Job between 3:4 and 40:2, while in the remainder of the Old Testament it is used no more than 15 times.

Certain scholars regard the word as being a singular version of the common plural form 'ĕlôahim, a plural of majesty. Ĕlôahh is commonly thought to be vocative in nature, meaning “O God.” But it is not clear why a special form for the vocative in an address to God should be needed, since the plural 'ĕlôahim is frequently translated as a vocative when the worshiper is speaking directly to God, as in Ps. 79:1. There is an obvious general linguistic relationship between 'ĕlôahh and 'ĕlôahim but determining its precise nature is difficult.

The word 'ĕlôah is predominant in poetry rather than prose literature, and this is especially true of the Book of Job. Some scholars have suggested that the author of Job deliberately chose a description for godhead that avoided the historical associations found in a phrase such as “the God of Bethel” (Gen. 31:13) or “God of Israel” (Exod. 24:10). But even the Book of Job is by no means historically neutral, since places and peoples are mentioned in introducing the narrative (cf. Job 1:1, 15, 17). Perhaps the author considered 'ĕlôahh a suitable term for poetry and used it accordingly with consistency. This is also apparently the case in Ps. 18:31, where 'ĕlôah is found instead of 'êl, as in the parallel passage of 2 Sam. 22:32. Ĕlôahh also appears as a term for God in Ps. 50:22; 139:19; and Prov. 30:5. Although Ĕlôahh as a divine name is rarely used outside Job, its literary history extends from at least the second millennium B.C. (as in Deut. 32:15) to the fifth century B.C. (as in Neh. 9:17).

'Êl  shadday (אֵל, Strong's #410, שַׁדַּי, Strong's #7706), “God Almighty.” This combination of ‘el with a qualifying term represents a religious tradition among the Israelites that was probably in existence by the third millennium B.C. A few centuries later, shadday appeared in Hebrew personal names such as Zurishaddai (Num. 1:6) and Ammishaddai (Num. 1:12). The earliest Old Testament appearance of the appellation as a title of deity (“God Almighty”) is in Gen. 17:1, where “God” identifies Himself in this way to Abraham.

Unfortunately, the name is not explained in any manner; and even the directions “walk before me, and be thou perfect” throw no light on the meaning of shadday. Scholars have attempted to understand the word relating it to the Akkadian shadu (“mountain”), as though “God” had either revealed His mighty power in association with mountain phenomena such as volcanic eruptions or that He was regarded strong and immutable, like the “everlasting hills” of the blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49:26). Certainly the associating of deity with mountains was an important part of Mesopotamian religion. The “gods” were believed to favor mountaintop dwellings, and the Sumerians constructed their staged temple-towers or ziggurats as artificial mountains for worship. It was customary to erect a small shrine on the uppermost stage of the ziggurat so that the patron deity could descend from heaven and inhabit the temple. The Hebrews began their own tradition of mountain revelation just after the Exodus, but by this time the name ‘el shadday had been replaced by the tetragrammaton of Yahweh (Exod. 3:15, 6:3).

'Êl shadday served as the patriarchs’ covenant name for “God,” and continued as such until the time of Moses, when a further revelation took place (Exod. 6:3). The Abrahamic covenant was marked by a degree of closeness between “God” and the human participants that was distinctive in Hebrew history. “God Almighty” revealed Himself as a powerful deity who was able to perform whatever He asserted. But the degree of intimacy between 'êl shadday and the patriarchs at various stages shows that the covenant involved God’s care and love for this growing family that He had chosen, protected, and prospered. He led the covenant family from place to place, being obviously present with them at all times. His covenant formulations show that He was not preoccupied with cultic rites or orgiastic celebrations. Instead, He demanded a degree of obedience that would enable Abraham and his descendants to walk in His presence, and live blameless moral and spiritual lives (Gen. 17:1). The true covenantal service of 'êl shadday, therefore, was not cultic or ritualistic, but moral and ethical in character.

In the early Mosaic era, the new redemptive name of “God” and the formulation of the Sinai covenant made 'êl shadday largely obsolete as a designation of deity. Subsequently, the name occurs about 35 times in the Old Testament, most of which are in the Book of Job. Occasionally, the name is used synonymously with the tetragrammaton of Yahweh (Ruth 1:21; Ps. 91:1-2), to emphasize the power and might of “God” in characteristic fashion. ‘El ‛ôlâm (אֵל, Strong's #410, עֹלָם, Strong's #5769), “God of eternity; God the everlasting; God for ever.” The word ‛ôlâm has related forms in various ancient Near Eastern languages, all of which describe lengthy duration or distant time. The idea seems to be quantitative rather than metaphysical. Thus in Ugaritic literature, a person described as ’bd ‘lm was a “permanent slave,” the term |‘lm(the same as the Hebrew ‛ôlâm) expressing a period of time that could not be measured other than as lengthy duration.

Only in rare poetic passages such as Ps. 90:2 are temporal categories regarded inadequate to describe the nature of God’s existence as 'êl ‛ôlâm. In such an instance, the Creator is deemed to have been “from everlasting to everlasting”; but even this use of ôlâm expresses the idea of continued, measurable existence rather than a state of being independent of temporal considerations.

The name 'êl ‛ôlâm was associated predominantly with Beer-sheba (Gen. 21:25-34). The settlement of Beer-sheba was probably founded during the Early Bronze Age, and the Genesis narrative explains that the name means “well of the oath” (Gen. 21:31). But it could also mean “well of the seven”—i.e., the seven lambs that were set apart as witnesses of the oath.

Abraham planted a commemorative tree in Beer-sheba and invoked the name of the Lord as 'êl ‛ôlâm. The fact that Abraham subsequently stayed many days in the land of the Philistines seems to imply that he associated continuity and stability with 'êl ‛ôlâm, who was not touched by the vicissitudes of time. Although Beer-sheba may have been a place where the Canaanites worshiped originally, the area later became associated with the veneration of the God of Abraham.

At a subsequent period, Jacob journeyed to Beer-sheba and offered sacrifices to the God of Isaac his father. He did not offer sacrifices to 'êl ‛ôlâm by name, however; and although he saw a visionary manifestation of God, he received no revelation that this was the God Abraham had venerated at Beer-sheba. Indeed, God omitted any mention of Abraham, stating that He was the God of Jacob’s father.

Gen. 21:33 is the only place in the Old Testament where the title 'êl ‛ôlâm occurs. Isa. 40:28 is the only other instance where ‛ôlâm is used in conjunction with a noun meaning God. See also LORD.

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'God'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. 1940.

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