Joel S. Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim.
(SBLDS, 183; Atlanta, GA.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), xv, 172 pp. ISBN 1-58983-016-4. $39.95
Reviewed by John Barclay Burns
George Mason University

This work offers an integrated study and re-evaluation of the term elohim in the Hebrew Bible. There are four chapters: an introduction giving the reasons for the study; comparative linguistic evidence for the use of the term in the Late Bronze Age and the First Millennium, and an examination of the word as a common noun; a survey of the title elohim in Israelite religion; and finally a chapter on the significance of the word in the E source of the Pentateuch.

Burnett undertakes the reassessment for three reasons. Despite the widespread use of the term, the corresponding scholarship is slight and located mainly in reference articles. These scattered articles diffuse any gains in the relevant scholarship and a comprehensive survey is required. Thirdly, the role of the term in Israelite religion has received scant attention. Moreover, the author aims to show that, before any manifestation of exilic monotheism, the title elohim was of considerable importance in the religion of Israel.

The word elohim, morphologically plural, is routinely construed with a singular verb. In chapter 2 Burnett explores this with reference to ilanu (plural form) in Late Bronze Age cuneiform documents from Syria-Palestine written in “western peripheral Akkadian” (p. 7). He cites instances from the Amarna letters (EA) where the plural refers to pharaoh, ilaniya, “my divinity,” and is construed with a singular verb or modified by a singular attributive adjective. He concludes that ilanu was used with a singular meaning and corresponds exactly to the use of elohim in the Hebrew Bible; a use that he has not yet discussed, merely asserted, evidence of the circular reasoning that hampers parts of his work. Geographical distribution of the term shows that the plural use spread from the coastal plain into the valleys and highlands, displacing the singular ilu with which it was interchangeable in pre-Amarna Canaanite, a term that could refer either to the personal god, the tutelary deity or the divine image. However, based on the juxtaposition of the two words in EA 151, he argues that ilanu possessed the further connotation of an abstract plural that encompassed the properties inherent in the concept, a classification known in biblical Hebrew, i.e., deity/divinity, as opposed to a specific god. First-Millennium parallels are adduced from Phoenician, Aramaic, and Akkadian sources. Burnett cites instances from Assyrian royal correspondence where the plural, ilanu is used for a single divinity. In Mesopotamian wisdom texts the personal god was regularly referred to in plural form, influenced by the Canaanite west.

There is an abrupt transition to an investigation of elohim as a common noun in the Hebrew Bible. There it is the preferred word for “god,” sharing the same basic semantic field as el and eloah, but with a wider range of abstract meaning and greater flexibility of language. After a discussion of the concept of patron deity in the Hebrew Bible, usually denominated elohim, its use for the god of the fathers, the god of Israel and in international contexts is examined. From this, Burnett contends, the word can denote a deity who stands in definitive relationships to individuals, groups or nations, and this has implications for the title in the state religion of Israel.

The frame of reference for “elohim in Israelite religion” (chap. 3) is understood as the northern kingdom. Burnett takes the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of the united and divided monarchy at face value (p. 79 n.1). Jeroboam I was the founder of a royal cult whose formula stated that elohim had brought the Israelites out of Egypt. After examining possible meanings of the plural form, the author proposes a novel interpretation of the word as denoting Yahweh and his divine entourage who bring his people from Egypt. Again, Burnett anticipates himself by simply introducing Yahweh without comment: only later will he argue for Yahweh as the elohim, patron deity of Israel. He connects the “elohim exodus formula” (p. 92) with the ark as a repository for or manifestation of the divine plurality of Yahweh and his company dating from pre-monarchic times. Later, the formula would come to be associated with the bull-images at Bethel and Dan. The Hebrew Bible’s account of pre-monarchic Israel is also accepted uncritically. The concluding section of the chapter contends that northern religious traditions, such as Hosea and the Elijah cycle, are at pains to identify the elohim, the divine patron, as Yahweh.

The final chapter treats the use of the term in the E strand of the Pentateuch. After a review of the Documentary Hypothesis, the presumed characteristics of an E document and the use of elohim to denote the patron of the ancestors, Burnett suggests that an extensive E narrative did exist that depended ultimately on northern prophetic circles. Although elohim was originally the El of Shechem, Bethel, and Beersheba, his identification with Yahweh, ensured the latter’s claim to exclusive worship in the north.

This volume does deliver a “reassessment” of biblical elohim, though it suffers from some uneven writing and editing. There are conceptual leaps, anticipations of arguments and conclusions not yet made: at the outset elohim is summarily defined and linked to the comparative material, fitting the foot to the glass slipper. Apart from the proposal that the word’s plural morphology may designate Yahweh and his divine entourage, the book treads well-trodden scholarly highways, eliciting at most nuances or possibilities of interpretation. Nevertheless, it assembles the relevant material conveniently, the footnotes are thorough, and it adds a competent dimension to the debate.