🔼The name El: Summary
- Much debated but ultimately unclear
- Unclear, although the word אל ('el) has a great many meanings.
🔼Etymology of the name El
The little word אל ('el) and its slightly larger sibling אלה (eloah) are very common in Hebrew and have a great many meanings. Which one was originally personified in the deity is no longer obvious, and the original name El may not even be among the many regular Hebrew אל-words. In fact, our name may have been imported into the Semitic language basin from elsewhere, possibly the north. The Hebrew name אל transliterated into Greek forms Ηλ, which constitutes the first syllable of the word ηλιος (helios), meaning sun. This word comes from an ancient proto Indo-European root sawel that also yielded the Latin sol and the English word "sun".
In names אל ('el) usually refers to אלהים ('elohim), that is Elohim, or God, also known as אלה ('eloah). In English, the words 'God' and 'god' exclusively refer to the deity but in Hebrew the words אל ('l) and אלה ('lh) are far more common and may express approach and negation, acts of wailing and pointing, and may even mean oak or terebinth.
🔼The name El in the Bible
El is the generally accepted shortened form of Elohim, the genus God. Etymologically, however, the link may not be so strong. In its signature charming way BDB Theological Dictionary states the 'question intricate and conclusions dubious.'
The way we, here at Abarim Publications, understand it, is that the word el was either the common Canaanite word for god, or a specific deity named such. When the Elohimite cult was introduced in the region, the name Elohim was formed independent of the word el or name El. When the reference to the Israelite God Elohim needed to be abbreviated (to serve as an element in names, for instance), the result was a second word el or name El, which was indistinguishable from the first one.
It's probably a bit like when someone from Faroffstan named Itzenbil (means 'mighty worried but rarely frowning' in his native language) moves into your neighborhood. Soon people start calling him Bill (short for Itzenbil), which is indistinguishable from Bill (short for William) who had been your neighbor for decades.
Originally El was the name of a Canaanite god, but Biblically the name El stands to Elohim the way Bob stands to Robert.
See for a more elaborate discussion on the nature of God, our article on the Greek word θεος (theos).