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You Probably Worship the Sumerian God Enlil

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What's your version of God like? A father-like figure who is pure Spirit, Mind, or is some embodiment of Nature? Does he want to love and bless everybody equally?

Well, there's a good chance that your preferred deity (however you conceive of him) is actually something like the tenth iteration of the Sumerian god, Enlil. Here's what we mean. Below are the basic evolutionary stages of development that your God likely passed through:*

Stage One: Sumerian Father Sky God, Enlil (ca. 2900-2800 BCE)

The earliest recorded religion comes from the ancient Sumerians. In the Mesopotamian pantheon, Enlil ("Lord of Air") was the most powerful elemental deity who was considered Father and King of the gods. Enlil was also worshipped by the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hurrians. A little later, Enlil's name was changed to Ellil by the Babylonians. He had several sons and daughters, including the moon-god Nanna/Sin, the sun-god Utu-Shamash, the weather god Ishkur/Adad, and the love-goddess Inanna/Ishtar. Ellil was depicted as an elderly father figure with a long beard, sitting on a throne in the sky. Although he was impatient and temperamental, Ellil was described as a benevolent, fatherly deity who cares for humanity's well-being.

  • Later, Ellil was absorbed and assimilated into the storm god Marduk during the Babylonian reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE).

    • Merging storm gods with sky gods was a natural process for the ancients.

    • Marduk would later become Zeus in Greek mythology.

Stage Two: Ellil was El in Canaan

The Canaanites who were living in the Levant, which included ancient Hebrews and Ugarits, were heavily influenced by Mesopotamian religion. So much so, in fact, that they simply adopted the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods (with dialectical differences in names). The head of the Ugaritic pantheon was El (plural: Elohim), which also became the common generic word meaning "god" in the Hittite, Ugaritic, paleo-Hebrew, Canaanite, and Aramaic languages. Just like Mesopotamian myths, the Ugaritics called El "father," "father of humanity," "king," and described him as the "Ancient of Days." He was "kind El, the Compassionate," an elderly bearded man, who is very old, wise, and lives on a mountain.

  • In Ugaritic mythology, El was absorbed and assimilated into the storm god Ba'al.

  • The Phoenician counterpart to El was the god, Dagon.

  • El (and later Ba'al) was associated with bulls and oxen as a sign of divinity.

Stage Three: Israelites Merge El with YHWH (ca. 1021–1000 BCE)

Originally, the Canaanite god, El, was the patron deity of the Israelites. Just like other Canaanites, the ancient Israelites viewed their patron deity as an elderly father figure, a king who lives on a mountain and is associated with bulls.

  • (Numbers 23:22) “El brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.”

  • (Genesis 33:20) "The god of Shechem is el elohe yisra'el ('El is the god of Israel')."

El had a number of sons, including Ba'al and YHWH, the latter god being a distinct and separate deity from south of Canaan. According to the Bible, the sky god, El, turned over control of the Israelites to YHWH.

  • (Psalm 82) "El has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment....

  • (Deuteronomy 32:8–9) “When Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of El. But Yahweh's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage."

For a number of different reasons, including trade and general cultural appropriation, YHWH became the patron deity of Israel's royal family.

YHWH was originally a storm god from the southern kingdom of Edom (sometimes referred to with place names in the Bible like Sinai, Seir, Teman, and Paran). As with other ancient Near Eastern myths (e.g., Marduk vs. Tiamat; Ba'al vs. Yam), the Bible depicts YHWH as having defeated sea monsters at the beginning of creation. And just like with the storm gods Marduk and Ba'al, El was absorbed and assimilated into the storm god YHWH.

  • (Deuteronomy 33:2) “YHWH came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand.”

  • (Judges 5:4–5) “YHWH, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked before YHWH, even Sinai before YHWH, the God of Israel.”

  • (Habakkuk 3:3) “Eloha came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.”

Soon afterward, Israel split into two kingdoms. During this time, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah fought over who could officially declare YHWH as their kingdom's patron deity.

Stage Four: Jews Stopped Saying YHWH's Name (3rd cent. BCE)

In time, the kingdom of Judah became a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, and some Judahite kings, like Josiah, wanted to rebel against his subjugation. When the Babylonians forced a power vacuum in the Levant, Josiah tried to resurrect Judah's kingdom by centralizing all worship to YHWH's temple in Jerusalem. In destroying other gods and sanctuaries in the land, Josiah was able to collect more taxes from all the people in order to rebuild an army. His theological justification for removing other gods was claiming that Judah's polytheistic worship of other deities was to blame for their subjugation. The Judahites were now mostly monolatrists, who worshipped YHWH exclusively without denying the existence of other gods. Around this time, the Israelite religion overtly adopted aniconism in order to prevent graven images of other gods from reappearing and stealing resources from Jerusalem.

But then the Babylonian Empire destroyed Judah and exiled certain Judahite aristocrats, including religious scribes and priests, who were taken to Babylon. These newly-isolated Jews changed their theology to accommodate the socio-political upheaval of having lost their kingdom to pagans. The Jews found themselves with no king, no kingdom, and no temple. They could no longer worship YHWH as the national god of a royal family. So, in order to preserve their religious and cultural identity, Jews updated their beliefs about YHWH (originally a localized storm god who merged with Enlil) and declared him to be a universal deity who was actually responsible for the Babylonian exile in the first place. There, they began to write the Bible from the perspective of Josiah's YHWH-only movement until they were liberated by the Persians. The Jews now became much more exclusivistic, monotheistic, and Torah-centric. By the third century BCE, Jews forbid the pronouncing of YHWH's name and chose, instead, to use the general designation "God" (Enlil in Sumerian; Theos in Greek) so as to reinforce their new idea that only one deity was in charge of all the happenings in the universe.

Stage Four: The Enlil of Imperial Philosophers (approx. 3rd cen. BCE–17th cent. CE)

During much of human history, including ancient Near Eastern and Israelite religions, the gods were just like humans in almost every single way. They were physical persons (albeit invisible) who ate, drank, walked, talked, and pooped. Hence, the earliest depictions of God in the Bible describe him in characteristically anthropomorphic terms. However, because of their contact with (and acculturation of) other belief systems, the Jews had appropriated a more spiritualized concept of God from the Persian Ahura Mazda (6th century BCE), the Platonic Monad (4th century BCE), and the Greco-Roman demiurges (3rd century onwards). The Greek philosophers, especially, did not like the crass and carnal depictions of classical anthropomorphic gods.

Now, the Jewish universal version of Enlil became a deity palatable for Hellenistic philosophers who conceived of "the One" as pure Spirit or pure Mind. Jewish theologians (like Philo) and Christian apologists (the Church Fathers) went out of their way to transform "God" into an abstract Ideal. Jews and Christians melded ancient Near Eastern stories about Enlil/El with the institutionalized imperial-religion of the Romans, which the Roman Empire merely transformed into a body politic that spread through violence and coercion. This new philosophical God would dominate the theocratic empires of Medieval Europe and Islam.

Stage Five: The Enlil of Rational Modernists (approx. 18th cent.–1960s)

When God was Enlil, he was made in the image of Mesopotamian rulers. When he was El, he was made in the image of Ugaritic and Israelite kings. When he was the Christian Theos, he was made in the image of Roman Emperors. When he was the Latin Deus, he was made in the image of feudal kings and lords. This was a pre-critical era that demanded total obedience and acceptance of the state religion.

Then came the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and an over-emphasis on analytical rationalism. This analytic approach to religion transformed medieval concepts about God into an individualistic belief system that was preoccupied with individual salvation (to the neglect of doing real-world good). Liberals often dismissed the Bible for not adhering to modern notions of rational credibility, adopting "natural theology" and a nature-based view of God. Enlil had once again returned to his original elemental status. Conservatives reacted in the opposite direction by turning the Bible into a modernistic encyclopedia of supernatural "facts," having the same legal status as the American Constitution. Enlil had now returned as a sovereign tribal deity (who also favored Representative Democracies for some reason).

Beliefs about God, whether liberal or conservative, were now dictated by democratic ideals of rationality and equality among believers. The pure Spirit version of Enlil developed by Greek philosophers became a modern scientist who embodied absolute truths of right and wrong, and everyone was free to conceive of God according to their own conscience (which usually took the form of a President or business CEO).

Stage Six: The Enlil of Relativistic Post-Modernists (1960s–Present)

The problem is that the father sky god, Enlil, had always been a deity of redemptive violence. Offending El/YHWH/God meant divine punishment as a consequence, which was exploited for colonialist agendas during the early modern period. An angry Enlil still needed appeasement in order to dispense mercy, and this retributional God just didn't sit well with hippies. The Enlightenment made God too rationalistic. He was too much of a distant scientist and not enough like a best friend, so a change was needed. Those who inherited belief in this old Sumerian deity now conceived of their religion as a relativistic "personal relationship with God." The goal of this deconstruction was to strip away the socio-political influences of reigning paradigms so that a better, more loving one could emerge in its place. But postmodernists never actually got rid of Enlil. They just simply dressed him in new garb resembling a benevolent charity organizer or philanthropist. The post-Enlightenment Enlil returned to his original role as a benevolent nature god who cares for humanity's well-being.

Conclusion: Which Enlil Stage is Yours?

Especially in Westernized countries, the notion of "God" is now an amalgamation of beliefs that go back to the Sumerian sky god, Enlil. Like El/Ellil, "God" today is imagined as an old wise father figure who is king of the universe. This "God" has sons and daughters, and it just so happens that they're us humans (his beloved children). Like the YHWH of later Judaism and Christianity, he is both benevolent and wrathful (a mixture of the beautiful sky and terrifying storms). Like the Allah of Islam, he is the only deity in existence, but with helpers. Like a Greek Monad, he is an abstract Spirit who is superior to our carnal imaginations. Like the modern scientist, "God" is rational and knows all truth. But like the postmodern hippie, Enlil is associated with nature, pure love, and compassion.

For some believers in God, a medieval version of Enlil is still culturally viable. For those who have abandoned precritical notions of religion, however, more updated versions of the sky god are promoted (both rationalistic and relativistic). But make no mistake about it: whatever version of "God" you believe in, we can trace him back to the sky god, Enlil, of the ancient Sumerians.


*Obviously, this short introduction to the subject is much too brief to do full justice to the complexity of syncretistic practices throughout human history. For further details and supporting evidence of what's stated above, check out the following academic sources:

  • Smith, Mark S. Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press, 2001.

  • Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

  • Bottéro, Jean. Religion in ancient Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

  • André, Lemaire. The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007.

  • Stavrakopoulou, Francesca, and John Barton, eds. Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. New York: T&T Clark, 2010.

  • Römer, Thomas. The invention of God. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015.

  • Witte, Markus, and Jürgen van Oorschot, eds. Origins of Yahwism. de Gruyter GmbH, Walter, 2019.

  • Slade, Darren M. The Logic of Intersubjectivity. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2020.

  • Smith, Mark S. Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World. Yale University Press, 2020.

  • Stavrakopoulou, Francesca. God: An Anatomy. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2022.

God, Yahweh, YHWH, Enlil, El, Elohim, Ba'al, Marduk, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Jews, Christians

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