In Genesis 14:17-24 Abraham meets Malkizedek the king of Salem after he defeats the kings of the east, and we find (NIV):

17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).

18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High [El Elyon], Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High [Yahweh El Elyon], Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

I find this passage extremely disturbing, and I think that traditional scholars have not given these verses enough attention. El Elyon was a famous Canaanite deity and Malkizedek is undoubtedly referring to him in verse 17. Abraham seems here to accept the blessing of Malkizedek the priest of El Elyon and even pays him tithes. This refutes the common traditional belief that Abraham was a monotheist.

But even more puzzling is verse 22 where Abraham identifies El Elyon with Yahweh! Did Abraham forsake the gods of his homeland in Mesopotamia only to embrace the brutish gods of Canaan? Granted that Abraham was not a monotheist and was probably not as harsh with polytheism as the Mosaic religion was, but why would Abraham identify his own deity (Yahweh or El Shaddai) with a foreign Canaanite deity? Furthermore, if Abraham believed that there isn’t much of a difference between Yahweh and El Elyon and possibly even the Mesopotamian gods, and that they are all a manifestation of the same god, what makes the Abrahamic religion any different from the ancient Near Eastern religions, and what’s so unique about it? And if there was nothing unique about the Abrahamic religion then why would Moses even identify his own religion with that of the Patriarchs as he constantly identifies Yahweh the monotheistic god with his ancestors and calls him “the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”?

So what I’m trying to figure out here is, what was the nature of the Abrahamic religion (as the above verses may reveal), and how similar was it to Mosaic religion? Was it polytheistic or monotheistic? If polytheistic, what was so unique about it and how was it different from the Mesopotamian religions of his homeland? Of course any good answer will have to take into account the identification of Yahweh with El Elyon in the Abrahamic worldview and offer some explanation.

I'm looking for well written scholarly answers, and not just poor unread speculations.

Update: I should add that the LXX and Syriac do not have the word "Yahweh" in the phrase "Yahweh El Elyon" as it appears in the MT (perhaps this was added later after "El Elyon" lost its polytheistic connotations, and has become another synonym for the Hebrew god Yahweh. See ba's comment below). If they preserve better the original text then we could say that at least Abraham didn't identify his God with the Canaanite deity, only that he was tolerant of other polytheistic religions including Malchizedek's God El Elyon. But more research is needed.

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    I'm not sure exactly how you define "Mosaic religion," but Deuteronomy 32:8 seems to refer to El Elyon (the word ישראל is often emended to אל based on the DSS which have אלוהים). Also, Jacob encountered אל בית אל and yet says אל שדי נראה אלי, so אל עליון could likewise simply be another synonymous name
    – b a
    Nov 28, 2017 at 16:18
  • Where are you getting the spelling 'Malkizedek' from, may I ask ?
    – Nigel J
    Nov 28, 2017 at 17:32
  • @NigelJ My own spelling. I read Hebrew and this is how it is pronounced according to the Nekudot of the Jewish Masorites.
    – bach
    Nov 28, 2017 at 19:17
  • @ba of course it was later used as a nickname of Yahweh, but here the OT specifically mentions that he was the priest of El Elyon, meaning he was worshiping a Canaanite deity and he was his priest. If its true what your saying, why wouldn't the bible be more clear and say that "he was a priest to Yahweh"? besides there probably was no priest of Yahweh in Israel at that point!
    – bach
    Nov 28, 2017 at 19:23
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    @user20490 yeah but aren't you aware that El in Canaanite religion is a father and gives birth to other gods and is cruel and stupid and is appeased through flattery and sacrifice! This is not really the kind of god the three monotheistic religions really believe in. I would never equate my monotheistic god (my understanding of him) with any other supreme pagan god no matter how powerful and mighty. Dont forget that El was worshiped alongside the Asherah, Baal and other crude deities and the religion was polytheistic. This is not something i would expect from Abraham the founder of monotheism!
    – bach
    Nov 29, 2017 at 14:40

3 Answers 3


I think that the premise of this question is mistaken. El Elyon simply means the Most High God in Hebrew, i.e. the creator of everything. El is a word that means god in Hebrew. The Canaanites spoke a version of Hebrew and called their Supreme God, El. Many religions have a Supreme God that created everything else. For example, in Hinduism, the Brahman is the Infinite, the unmoved mover from which everything else, including the many lower gods, comes from.

Melchizedek, unlike others in Canaan, did not worship the lower Canaanite gods, but only the Most High, the creator of all. Abraham is identifying the creator of all with his God. If he had traveled to India, Abraham would have identified his God with Brahman. Names aside, Abraham's mission is to serve and identify the Creator of Heaven and Earth as opposed to the petty little gods most people served. Moving the focus from the most immediate to the most divine is what leads to monotheism and וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְהוָה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד (Deutoromony 4:39).

Therefore, the term "El Elyon" became synonymous with the Hebrew God. See Psalms 78:35 (referring to the Hebrew God as El Elyon); Psalms 107:11 (referring to the Hebrew God as both El and Elyon). So much so that the Hebrew God is called "El Elyon" daily in every Jewish prayer service. See https://www.sefaria.org/Siddur_Ashkenaz,_Weekday,_Shacharit,_Amidah,_Patriarchs?lang=bi

In summation, Melchizedek is serving the same God as Abraham. The point of Abraham and his theology was that there was no need to intervene with petty gods. That service should be direct to the ultimate Creator, the divine Infinite, whether you call it, El Elyon, Elohim, Allah, or Brahmin, or יְהוָה֙.

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    This is analogous to the fact that people accuse Hebrews of worshiping a 'Canaanite god' just because they called their God "God" like the Hebrews, and Muslims, for that matter. Jul 9, 2019 at 21:52

The reminder box above my "answer" says "be sure to answer THE question"! There are several questions in the OP. The article I am linking here is authoritative, not simplistic. There is nobody I trust more than Michael Heiser on the topic. Simplistic ideas about monolatry, monotheism, polytheism, and "Elohim" cause us to talk past one another. Would that everyone would adopt Heiser's view of "Elohim". [see, the auto-correct capitalizes the word.... that's what Heiser is talking about]


I will let the scholar speak in detail but my answer to one of your questions is: - I would prefer "Abrahamic system" to "Abrahamic religion". - We cannot conclude, based on the scriptures in their original context, that El/Elyon [a plainer way to state] is seen as a DIFFERENT ontological entity than YHWH by "most" of the leaders of the Abrahamic religion as presented in Christian canon[s]. I think this is what the first answer above is saying. Unfortunately the scholastic community has tended to jump to the idea of El/Elyon vs YHWH implying a polytheism-to-monotheism continuum, which Heiser rejects - Your post implies an assertion that Abraham was from a heathen/polytheist community, an all-too-common assertion in Jewish and Christian sermonizing [more so than scholastics... but little more]. The scriptures themselves defy this conclusion; ie Genesis 24. Certainly Shem was alive contemporaneously with Abram, and by some chronologies even Noah would overlap by a few years, and the short-path would be that Abram was YHWH'ist from YHWH'ists. There is no evidence that Abram was not "YHWHist" from the edge. There is one scripture that says his people worshiped other gods, but the bride-acquisition accounts of Issac and Jacob show the older family to have been sympathetic to YHWH.

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    Thanks for the link, was nice to see someone intelligent defend the bible. Just one point, i think that in the context of the Malkizedek account it is obvious that El Elyon is a canaanite deity, and that Abraham was addressing him when he said that he swore to the creator of heavens and earth. see my comment above. It is only mush later that El and Yahweh become one and the same as Heiser claims.
    – bach
    Dec 6, 2017 at 20:14
  • Regarding your second point, Gen 24 does not defy this conclusion. Abraham may have wanted to marry from the same tribe for different reasons: "Endogamy could be the result of religious, social or ethnic concerns. In this text it appears to be ethnic in that there are no suggestions that the family of Laban, Rebekah and Rachel shares the religious beliefs of Abraham and his family. In this text the endogamy seems motivated by the *covenant that seeks to prevent Abraham and his family from simply being assimilated into the ethnic melting pot in Canaan." IVP Bible commentary.
    – bach
    Dec 6, 2017 at 20:21
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    The assertion that Abraham was from a heathen/polytheist community is an extremely old Jewish tradition. It is mentioned both in the Passover Hagada and, more importantly, in Joshua 24:2. Dec 7, 2017 at 22:42
  • I was thinking of the statement in Joshua when I said the scriptures are conflicted. What I find of counterpoint interest compared to the sermonizing about Abram is the conversation between individuals in the marriage narratives. The conversation between Abram’s emissaries and his kinsmen has devotion to YHWH throughout. There is no evidence noted that theirs was a community of heathen. I prefer to let the evidence direct, vs traditional interpretation. And, tribal cultures are hardly stagnant. Perhaps some in Terah’s ancestry were idolatrous.
    – Richard7
    Dec 8, 2017 at 1:58

We ought to consider the following:

The first person mentioned in historical-mythic traditions who worshiped only the Most High God is Atrahasis. This is reported in an Akkadian (polytheist) writing. This Most High God is called Enki. From the context, Atrahasis can safely be identified with Noah we know from the Torah.

Abram is from Ur (today Kuwait), growing up in essentially that Post-Akkadian polytheist religion from which we know the oldest telling of the story of Noah, again refusing to worship any other god but God the Most High. Abram probably called Him «Ilu».

Although the places and kingdoms mentioned in Gen 14 cannot be identified with certainty, there is much evidence that the cities involved were in the Jordan and dead Sea region. If Melchizedek was from there, he was probably a Canaanite, and if we follow and trust Gen 16, he was a Canaanite who refused polytheism in favour of worshipping the God the Most High. Melchizedek probably called the God the Most High «El», and Abraham and Melchizedek agreed in that they are worshipping the Same God.

The descendants of Abraham in Egypt were living in a Canaanite society where probably monotheistic and polytheistic practices coexisted. Both acknowledged the or a Most High God and used the same name for Him, "El Elyon" or simply "El".

About a thousand years after Abraham, the Jews did not recognise the Most High God of the - always polytheistic - Canaanites as the same as YHWH, and Elias fought the priests of that god as priests worshipping a different deity.

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    "Elias fought the priests of that god as priests worshipping a different deity." I'm not aware of any Israelite worshipping El in the times of Elijah or in any period of the Israelite kingdom, or it causing any trouble. In most instances it is Baal that they are worshipping, and that is usually the point of contention between the prophets of Yahweh and Baal. Elijah fought the latter and its prophets, but we don't find him opposing any worship of El. It seems like you are confused.
    – bach
    Oct 25, 2021 at 0:12
  • @Bach In the Canaanite religion, "El" was by that time called "Ba'al" meaning "Lord", which is similar to the Jewish phenomenon replacing "YHWH" by "Adonai".
    – SDG
    Oct 26, 2021 at 17:13
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    And your evidence?
    – bach
    Oct 27, 2021 at 0:06

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