BCC Papers 2/2: Barney, Elkenah

On Elkenah as Canaanite El

by Kevin L. Barney


Much like the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham is extant only in its English translation (and other translations based on the English text). In such a situation, the transliterated words in the text’s onomasticon take on added significance as representing possible fossilized remnants of the original text.1 Although the Book of Abraham contains a number of easily recognizable Hebrew words and names, many of the names in the book are more obscure and have a less obvious derivation. The first of these words to appear in the text is “Elkenah.” In this article I will explore the possible derivations of this word and then articulate some of the ramifications the most likely derivations would have for our understanding of the Book of Abraham generally.

Elkenah in the Book of Abraham

The name “Elkenah” appears 12 times in the Book of Abraham. The first three occurrences derive from the explanations to Facsimile 1. Figure 3 is identified as “The idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice,” referring to the person standing at the left of the altar. Figure 4 shows “the altar of sacrifice by the idolatrous priests, standing before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash and Pharaoh,” referring to the lion couch, the four canopic jars and the crocodile of the Facsimile. Figure 5 is labeled “the idolatrous god of Elkenah,” referring to the falcon headed jar, generally understood in its Egyptian context as Qebehsenuf, one of the four Sons of Horus.

Turning to the text itself, Elkenah is mentioned an additional seven times in Abraham 1, at verses 6, 7 (bis), 13, 17, 20 and 29, and again in Abraham 2:13 and 3:20. The first three of these occurrences appear in the following quote from Abr. 1:5-7:

My fathers, having turned from their righteousness, and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given them, unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathen, utterly refused to hearken to my voice; for their hearts were set to do evil, and were wholly turned to the god of Elkenah, and the god of Libnah, and the god of Mahmackrah, and the god of Korash, and the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; therefore they turned their hearts to the sacrifice of the heathen in offering up their children unto these dumb idols, and hearkened not unto my voice, but endeavored to take away my life by the hand of the priest of Elkenah. The priest of Elkenah was also the priest of Pharaoh.

This text mentions both “the god of Elkenah” and the “priest of Elkenah,” who also does double-duty as “the priest of Pharaoh.” The principal evils involved in the worship of this and the other “heathen” gods are idolatry and child sacrifice. Abraham speaks against the practice of child sacrifice, but is rebuffed. Verse 10 tells of the “thank-offering of a child,” and verse 11 tells us of three virgin girls who were sacrificed by the priest of Elkenah. According to verse 12, the priests also attempted to sacrifice Abraham, apparently in part as a response to his speaking out against the practice, his father having been an instigator of the attempted sacrifice (v. 30). Abraham lifted up his voice unto the Lord, who filled him with the vision of the Almighty and sent the angel of his presence to unloose Abraham’s bands (v. 15). In v. 16 the angel speaks as if he were the Lord (or possibly this was the Lord himself) to Abraham, announcing that he has heard Abraham and has come down to deliver him into a strange land. The angel/Lord announces that they (meaning the fathers) have turned their hearts away from him to worship the god of Elkenah and the other idolatrous gods, and that for this reason he has come to destroy the priest who sought to take Abraham’s life (v. 17). Verse 20 tells us that this took place in the land of Ur, of Chaldea. And so the Lord breaks down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land, and utterly destroys them and smites the priest so that he dies. Finally, verse 29 reports that following the death of the priest of Elkenah, there was a famine in the land, in response to which Abraham follows God’s direction and goes to the land of Canaan (ch. 2, v. 4).

Was Elkenah the name of a god, a place or a person? Each appearance of the name “Elkenah” in the text is preceded by “the god of,” “the gods of” (when part of a sequence), “the priest of” or “the altar of.” There is an inherent ambiguity in the English genitive particle “of,” and Hugh Nibley has suggested that, instead of the name of a god, “Elkenah” could be the name of a person or place.2 While I would acknowledge this as a possibility, in my view, the most natural way to read the text is to take “the god of Elkenah” as an epexegetic genitive (i.e., Elkenah is the god), in which case “the priest of Elkenah” would be the priest dedicated to the god of that particular cult. While either “the god [worshiped by the person] Elkenah” or “the god [worshiped at the place] Elkenah” is conceivably possible, and while I do believe that this is the correct way to read the text in the case of “the god of Pharaoh,”3 these alternatives in the case of “the god of Elkenah” strike me as unduly strained. In particular, I believe the language of verse 20, “and the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land” equates Elkenah with the other gods of the land (in this instance not separately named as was the case previously). Indeed, since Elkenah is specifically named here and the other gods are not, and since Elkenah is always listed first (even to the point of requiring the backward numbering of the four gods before the altar in Facsimile 1), Elkenah would appear to be not only a god, but the preeminent god in the cultus described in the story.4

At this point let us stop and summarize the main points we can derive from the text concerning Elkenah:

  • Although the name conceivably could refer to a person or place, it most likely refers to a god.
  • Elkenah represents the supreme god in the cult of the fathers against which Abraham argued.
  • Child sacrifice to this god was offered, which was evil in the sight of the Lord. Apart from idolatrous representation, this seems to have been the principal fault of this deity from Abraham”s perspective.
  • A priest of this god attempted to sacrifice Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees.
  • The priest of Elkenah was also the priest of Pharaoh.
  • Elkenah was represented on Facsimile 1 by the falcon-headed canopic jar of Qebehsenuf, one of the Sons of Horus.
  • The Lord broke the bands that bound Abraham, broke down the altar of Elkenah, destroyed the gods, and killed the priest of Elkenah.
  • Following the death of the priest of Elkenah, there was a famine in the land that necessitated Abraham’s removal to the land of Canaan.

The Name “Elkenah”

With that background, we can begin to approach the name itself. We are fortunate to have a partial Rosetta Stone to aid us in our investigation, for the “El-” element of Elkenah almost certainly represents the Semitic word ‘el (or ilu in Akkadian). Further, in the Bible as elsewhere, Semitic El is very commonly modified in some fashion, which appears to be the case here as well. Based on known uses of the word El, I will suggest six (not necessarily exhaustive) possibilities for how we might take the following -kenah element. As a general matter, El could be either the proper name of the god or the generic Semitic term for “god.” In either case, the following –kenah element could be in apposition with the El- element, or it could be in a genitival relationship, or it could be an attributive adjective or participle, or it could be a verb construed with El, or it could be a pronominal suffix of some sort. What strike me as the six most likely possible linguistic structures for this name are as follows:

A. El could be used as the generic appellative “god” with a divine name following in apposition; i.e., “the god Kenah.” This usage is, however, relatively rare (one parallel being ‘l Hd “the god Haddu”).

B. Elkenah could be a theophoric name predicating some quality of the El- compound; i.e. “El is kenah“ or “El kenah [as a verb],” whatever kenah might mean. For instance, Abraham”s chief servant was named Eliezer, “God of help” or “my God is help” (Gen. 15:2).5 This type of structure would only work if Elkenah were the name of a human being (or an angel) and not the name of the god himself.

C. The –kenah element could refer to a place or people. In this event, the name would mean “El of Kenah,” where Kenah is a land, country or ethnic designation. An analogous form in the Old Testament would be ‘El Yisrael “the God of Israel” from Psalm 68.

D. The -kenah element could refer to a person. In this event, the name would mean “El of Kenah,” where Kenah is a human being. An analogous form in the Old Testament would be ‘elohim Abraham “the God of Abraham” as in Genesis 31:53.

E. The –kenah element could be an epithet modifying the El- element. Such epithets are common in the Old Testament. Many scholars believe that at least some of these epithets originated as localized El cults that eventually were genericized in the tradition that preserved these names. Examples of El epithets include the following:

El Combination


Canaanite Cult

El Shaddai

El Almighty


El Elyon

El the Highest One


El Olam

El the Everlasting One


El Bethel

El of Bethel (i.e., the El revealed at the shrine Bethel)


El Roi

El of Vision (or Divining)


El Berith

El of the Covenant


Numerous other El epithets exist, such as ‘el de’oth “God of knowledge” (1 Samuel 2:3), ‘el neqamoth “God of vengeance” (Psalm 94:1), and ‘el gemuloth “God of recompense” (Jeremiah 51:56).

F. Kenah could be the name of a deceased king. There is evidence of a Canaanite belief in post-mortem divinization.6 The Ugaritic king list precedes each name with the word ‘l “god.”7

With this brief survey of some of the possbilities inherent in an El combination, let us now turn our attention to six concrete proposals for how the name Elkenah should be taken in the Book of Abraham:

1. ‘El qanah “God has created [scilicet a son].” This name occurs a number of times in the Old Testament, mostly within a line of Korahite Levites (see Appendix 1), transliterated in the King James Version as Elkanah. The name also occurs in Akkadian, both as Ilu-qana and (with the elements reversed) as Qana-ilu.8 The precise meaning of the name is disputed because there is a significant scholarly debate over whether the Hebrew verb qanah principally means “to create” or “to acquire.”9 In any event, as a theophoric name (pattern B) this name would only work if one were willing to take Elkenah in the Book of Abraham as the name of a person, as in “the god [worshiped by the person] Elkenah.” Pace Nibley, I do not believe that this is a correct reading of the Book of Abraham; I therefore would discount this name as a possible solution.10

2. ‘El qeni “El is mighty.” This was the first of three suggestions offered by Hugh Nibley in his Era series,11 and involves a combination of the Semitic El with an Egyptian element qen- or qeni, which means “mighty, powerful, brave.” The form would be analogous to Amon-qen(i), “Amon is mighty.” Although Nibley devotes two columns of text to explaining this suggestion, which appears to have been his favorite, I would discount it for the same reason I would discount ‘El qanah above; I do not believe Elkenah in the Book of Abraham is meant to refer to a human being.

3. Il Kinahhi “El of Canaan.” This was the second of Nibley’s three suggestions, and one that I came to myself independently. Although Nibley devoted only a few sentences to it, I believe it is actually by far the strongest of his proposals.

On the surface, this might appear to be one of the weaker proposals, since in Hebrew “Canaan” is spelled with a second “n”: Kn’n, or Kena’an with Masoretic vocalization (accented on the second syllable). Egyptian also prefers the second “n” with the spellings Kin’nw and K3n’n3. The name is also found syllabically written in Akkadian as Ki-na-ah-num (gentilic), with the pharyngeal consonant represented by h, and as Ki-in-a-nim,12 with the pharyngeal unrepresented. In cuneiform texts from Tell El Amama and Bogazkoy, however, the following spellings are attested: Ki-na-ah-ni, Ki-na-ah-na. Ki-na-ah-hi, Ki-na-a-ah-hi and Ki-na-hi.13 Ugaritic also reflects both spellings with the final -n and spellings without it, as in mariM MATKi-na-hi “men of the land of Canaan.”14 The appearance of the (normalized) reduced base Kinahh- indicates that the final -n in the other examples is an affixational morpheme (i.e., a grammatical element).15 The geminate (doubled) final consonant in Kinahhu16 (hh-) is a common feature of the Akkadian transcription of non-Akkadian words and geographic names, as in Amurru, Simurru, Mitanni (nominative Mitannu) and Hilakku.17 Of the dozen occurrences of “Canaan” in the Tell El Amarna letters, those originating in Canaan itself (i.e., Tyre and Byblos) use the –n affix, but those originating in Syria and Mesopotamia do not.18

In the Greek of the Septuagint as well as in the New Testament, Canaan is transliterated Χανααν Chanaan, based on the Hebrew spelling. There are other Greek sources, however, that spell the name Chna [Χνα chi­-nu-alpha]. For instance, Hecataeus of Miletus affirmed that Phoenicia was called Chna.19 Philo of Byblos in his Phoenician History identifies a certain Chna as the first to carry the name “Phoenician,”20 and Herodianus Grammaticus (second century A.D.) and Stephanus of Byzantium (s.v. Chna) report that the Phoenicians were formerly called Chna. These Greek sources appear to represent a continuity with the Akkadian reduced form Kinahh-.21

The etymology of “Canaan” has been somewhat elusive. Scholars have moved from Semitic, to non-Semitic, and back to Semitic assumptions concerning the origin of the name. E. A. Speiser argued that Kinahhu had a Hurrian origin, consisting of kina and the Hurrian suffix -(h)hi “belonging to.”22 The meaning of the kina element was somewhat uncertain. One possibility was that it meant “reed,” with the word itself meaning “land of reeds” (cf. Byblos, so named for being an exporter of papyrus, which was made from reeds, whence the Greek word for “book” [bublos] and English “bible”). A second possibility was that kina meant red purple dye (derived from a certain type of shell common on the sea coast), which seemed to be supported by cuneiform texts from Nuzi. On this theory the occasional -n affix would be the Hurrian definite article or a determinative suffix, and Kinahhu would mean “Belonging to (the land of) Purple.” This etymology was appealing because it suggested a continuity with the Greek word for the Phoenicians, Phoinike (from phoinix, “red purple”), and it also explained the use of Hebrew kn’ny for “merchant.” But it has since been shown that the Hurrian word had a different history than that posited by Speiser,23 and improved attestation of third millennium B.C. geographic names from Syria-Palestine has lessened the likelihood of a Hurrian etymology for “Canaan.” For instance, the ethnicon “Canaanite” is now attested in a text from Mari as kina-ah-nummeš.24 It now appears that the words for “purple” and “merchant” took their names from the region, rather than giving their names to the region. The meaning of the word now most likely must be sought in the Semitic lexicon, in which event the –n affix is not a Hurrian grammatical element at all, but an attested, though rare, Semitic noun-forming suffix.25

If, as most scholars now believe, the word is Semitic in origin, it almost certainly derives from the root *KN’ (“to bend the knee, to bow”), with an afformative -n sometimes added. This word actually is a distant ancestor of English “knee” (by way of Greek gonu, gnu). One possible Semitic etymology for the word, suggested long ago by Wilhelm Gesenius, is “lowland” (as opposed to the higher country of Aram to the east),26 but this is problematic because the root does not have the intransitive meaning “to be low.” The most recent and widely accepted Semitic etymology for “Canaan” was put forward by M. Astour.27 He noted that *KN’ in Biblical Hebrew [kana‘] is found only in the niphal verb stem (“to be subdued,” “to lower oneself’) and in the hiphil (“to subdue”). In Aramaic, the verb [kena’] also occurs in the qal, “to bow down, bend.” Arabic kana’a has several usages, including (a) “to fold wings and descend to earth” (said of a large bird), and (b) “to bow, to incline toward the horizon” (said of a star). As applied to the sun, the word would be exactly equivalent to Latin occidere.28 Therefore, Astour takes the derived form Kina’u as signifying the “Occident,” the “Land of Sunset” or “Westland.”29 This is the West Semitic equivalent of Akkadian Amurru “West.” In Amarna era texts and in the Bible, the terms Canaan and Amurru are largely synonymous.30 It is interesting in this connection that the Sons of Horus stood for the four cardinal directions,31 and that Qebehsenuf, which represents “the idolatrous god of Elkenah” on Facsimile 1, was indeed the god of the west.32

I am not aware of an actual attestation of Il Kinahhi (subject to the discussion under proposal 5 below). The Ebla tablets come close, however, describing an offering to dBe Ka-na-na “Lord of Canaan,” where the appellative dBe refers to Dagan.33 The Ras Shamra tablets equate Dagan with EI, each of which is described as the father of Baal. Note also the usage in Psalm 106:38, ‘atsabbe Kena’an, “the idols of Canaan” (used in a child sacrifice context). Note further that some form of the word “Canaan” appears six times in the Book of Abraham text.

4. ‘El Qini “El of the Kenites.” This was the third of Nibley’s three suggestions. The Kenites are first mentioned at Genesis 15:19 (as part of a list of peoples God would dispossess to give their land to Abraham’s descendants), and were understood to be descendants of Cain [Qayin], although in fact their name probably refers to their metal-working craft. These were desert nomads who lived to the east of Egypt, and were generally viewed favorably by the Israelites. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite. Part of the rationale for this proposal, apart from a mild linguistic resemblance, is based on something of a misunderstanding. Apparently following Klaus Baer,34 Nibley took the hawk-headed jar of Facsimile 1, Figure 5 (i.e., “the idolatrous god of Elkenah”), as Duamutef,35 who represented the east. Since the Kenites lay to the east of Heliopolis, this seemed to him like a natural fit. The hawk-headed figure is usually not, however, Duamutef, but Qebehsenuf, and this is the god representing the west, not the east, as described above. Therefore, a significant portion of the rationale for this proposal was based on a mistake.

5. dIlgi-na [meaning uncertain]. John Lundquist has suggested this as a possibility.36 It is number 407 on a list of 3800 Mesopotamian deities. The gi syllable can also be read as ki, and the name is accompanied by the Sumerian DINGIR determinative, indicating that this is the name of a god. This is certainly a possibility; since, however, we know nothing else about this deity, it is rather difficult to evaluate how strong a possibility it might be (apart from linguistic similarity). Actually, it is conceivable that this could be an attestation of number 3, II Kinahhi. As we have seen, the name of a divinity dBe Ka-na-na [or Ga-na-na] “Lord of Canaan” has been found among third millennium B.C. cuneiform texts from Ebla. The construct form of ilu can be formed by dropping its -u case ending, to il. We have also observed that the pharyngeal consonant of the name could be unrepresented; dIl-gi-na therefore could be normalized as II Kina, meaning “El of Canaan” (without the –n affix). I am not, however, an Assyriologist, and so I simply make this as a suggestion to be evaluated by competent scholars in this area.

6. ‘El qoneh “El the Creator.” This would be a hypocoristic form of the well attested Canaanite epithet ‘l qn ars, “El, Creator of the Earth,” which is itself a shorter version of the later and longer form of the epithet found at Gen. 14:19, 22: ‘el ‘elyon qoneh shamayim we’arets “EI Most High, Creator of the Heaven and the Earth.”37 In a Hittite myth borrowed from Canaan prior to 1200 B.C.38 El is called “Elkunirsa” (the Hittite spelling of West Semitic ‘I qn ars). This El was the husband of the goddess Asherah (=Ashertu) and lived in a tent at the headwaters of the Euphrates (=Mala) River.39 This name appears in the Phoenician-Hittite bilingual inscription of Azitawadda.40 This same epithet (‘I qn ‘ars, partially restored) was found in a three-line inscription dating to the eighth or seventh century B.C. by N. Avigad in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem in 1971.41 There is a substantial body of literature on this name.42 The similarity in form of this name to proposal no. 1 is due to the fact that the same verb is used in both names, but here the verb is an attributive participle.

In assessing these six proposals, for the reasons I have indicated, I would consider numbers 1, 2 and 4 as the least likely possibilities. Number 5 is possible, but in the absence of further information it cannot be effectively assessed. In my view, the strongest proposals are numbers 3 and 6. Based on present information, however, it may be difficult to select between these options. This is because number 3 is based on the Semitic root *KN’, and number 6 on *QNH, and the English element -kenah in the Book of Abraham is not sufficiently precise to distinguish between these two roots.43 Number 6 gets points for being based on a strongly attested El epithet. Also, some Book of Abraham manuscripts spell Elkenah as “Elkkener,” with an “r” ending, which is at least suggestive of the plene form of the epithet. On the other hand, while Kinahhi is not to my knowledge attested with an El combination, the patterns “El of [place name]” and “[god] of Canaan” are both attested. Kinahhi itself is attested earlier than number six, and this proposal does not require that we posit a hypocoristic form. Also, in my view, the vowels work better for proposal 3 than for any other (including proposal 1). All things considered, it seems to me that we have a draw between proposals 3 and 6, at least pending further research. For many purposes, however, our inability to decide conclusively between these two proposals will not matter, because both have reference to the same deity: Canaanite El.

Elkenah as Canaanite El

Does an equation of Canaanite El with Elkenah fit what we know of Elkenah from the Book of Abraham text? I believe that it does. First of all, we suggested that Elkenah must be a reference to a god and not a man. We know that Elkenah could be a human’s name from biblical attestations, but we have now also demonstrated that Elkenah works very well as the name of a god.

Second, we deduced that this god was likely the chief god of its pantheon. El in fact was the supreme deity of the Canaanite pantheon. El was the father and creator of gods and men. He was perceived as an aged patriarch, wise in judgment, the king of heaven, and chief of the council of the gods. He was a tent-dweller and lived in the far north. His patriarchal authority was won in the ancient wars of the gods as a great warrior. His principal wife was Asherah, mother and creatress of the gods, although his other sisters Anat and Astarte also served as consorts. His vigorous procreative powers populated heaven and earth.44

Third, we saw that Abraham’s experience with this god took place at Ur of the Chaldees. If we can assume the northern location for Ur in Syria,45 the presence of a Canaanite cult (together with some Egyptian syncretism, seen in the priest of Elkenah also acting as the priest of Pharaoh) in that area is not surprising. El was not only the supreme deity in Canaan, but in Syria-Palestine generally.46 Lundquist reports that the chief deities at Ebla were Dagan, Baal, Sipish (or Shemesh), Kemash, Ashtar (the male version of Ishtar) and Hadda.47 Syncretistic Canaanite versions of these deities also existed (with Dagan being the Syrian equivalent of El).

If proposal 3 is correct, this may explain why it was necessary to qualify the name El with “of Canaan” or “of the West,” in order clearly to distinguish this from another El cult. If proposal 6 is correct, note that the myths relating to this deity place him at the headwaters of the Euphrates, which is in the general area of the northern location for Ur.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, an identification of Elkenah as Canaanite El would help to explain the presence of child sacrifice in the Book of Abraham account. In 1969, William James Adams, Jr. published an article in BYU Studies entitled “Human Sacrifice and the Book of Abraham.”48 At the time Adams was a graduate student in Akkadian, Ugaritic and Old Testament languages at Hebrew Union College. Adams showed Facsimile 1 to some of his fellow students in Assyriology, who immediately claimed that there was no evidence the Babylonians ever practiced human sacrifice. This led Adams to look into the matter; his interest in the topic was further spurred with the recovery of the original of Facsimile 1 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Adams found that, while there was a widespread scholarly assumption against Babylonian human sacrifice, certain scholars remained uncommitted either way. Looking into the evidence himself, he did find some suggestive items, from four sources: (l) circumstantial evidence from archaeological digs, (2) comments in ancient written texts, (3) human sacrifices as pictured on cylinder seals, and (4) the behavior of other Semitic peoples regarding the practice of human sacrifice. Adams assumed that Ur of the Chaldees was in southern Mesopotamia, and therefore assumed that evidence for human sacrifice in the Book of Abraham should come from Babylonian sources. Most of the evidence Adams found was either subject to alternate explanations or apparently based on influence from western Semitic religion.49

If we assume a northern location for Ur50 and take Elkenah as Canaanite El, then human sacrifice in the Book of Abraham is no longer a difficulty. While Babylonian (and Egyptian) evidence of human sacrifice of the type portrayed in Abraham 1 may be somewhat limited, scholars generally agree that human sacrifice was a long accepted practice in Canaanite religion.51 The Old Testament preserves a number of allusions to Canaanite practices of human and child sacrifice, such as Deut. 12:31, Psalm 106:37-39, Isaiah 66:3, Micah 6:7, and the numerous references to the Molech cult (including Lev. 18:21 and 20:2, 2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 17:17 and 31, and 23:10, Jer. 7:31-32 and 32:35, and Ezekiel 16:20-21). The Akedah or “binding” of Isaac in Genesis 22 likely had a Canaanite background.52 It was El among the gods who sacrificed his own children, Yadid and Mot.53 Classical sources54 and archaeological discoveries55 attest to human sacrifice in the continuum from Canaanite to Phoenician to Punic religion,56 with the popularity of child sacrifice at Carthage being dependent on an El cult.57 If Elkenah was Canaanite El, then the feature of child sacrifice in the Book of Abraham fits that cult very well indeed.

Although the Molech cult spoken of in the Bible, which is a particular manifestation of the longstanding Canaanite penchant for child sacrifice, postdates the time of Abraham,58 it does have some indirect relevance to the Book of Abraham. Some scholars, notably Moshe Weinfeld,59 have questioned whether the cult really involved child sacrifice, preferring to see the key expression “to pass through the fire” as a simple dedication to the god. Most scholars, however, acknowledge that the cult did indeed involve the actual killing of children. A second issue is whether Molech should be taken as the name of a god, or simply as the name of an offering, as Otto Eissfeldt argued in 1935.60 Although there is in fact a Punic term mulk that means “offering,” most scholars believe that the Old Testament references to Molech are to an actual deity. A third issue is the identification of this deity. There have been many proposals, but the most widely held view today equates the god with the Mlk resident at ‘ttrt mentioned in the Ras Shamra tablets (Malik in Akkadian texts),61 a god of the netherworld.62

It has sometimes been supposed that human sacrifice to Molech should be identified with the offering of the first-born male to Yahweh mentioned in the Pentateuch. In distinguishing these practices, scholars have pointed out that the Canaanite sacrifices were not limited to the first-born, nor were they limited to one child only per family, nor were they limited to sons, as the sources speak repeatedly of offering daughters as well as sons. It is interesting in this light that the Book of Abraham mentions the sacrifice of three daughters, which thus accords with known Canaanite practices.63


We began by examining the Book of Abraham text to see what it tells us about the figure Elkenah. Based on an assumption that the El- element in the name is Semitic ‘el, we identified a number of possible linguistic structures for an ancient El combination. We then reviewed six concrete proposals for Elkenah, concluding that the strongest possibilities, “El of Canaan” and “El the Creator,” both point in the direction of the same deity: Canaanite El.

This deity compares favorably with the information set forth in the Book of Abraham text regarding Elkenah.64 In particular, the type of child sacrifice described in Abraham 1 fits a Canaanite cult much more readily than it would an Assyro-Babylonian or an Egyptian. Although there is much more work to be done (including similar studies of the other names in the Book of Abraham onomasticon), both the name Elkenah and the cult described in the text seem to point to a Syro­Palestinian context for Abraham 1. Consistent with Lundquist’s study, I believe that future research should focus on this region as a prime location for the possible setting of the text.

Appendix 1

The Name Elkanah in the Old Testament65

1. Son of Korah (and great grandson of Levi)

Exod. 6:24

2. A Korahite Levite (possibly the same as no. 1)

1Chr. 6:23, 25, 36

3. A Korahite Levite, descended from no. 2

1Chr. 6:26, 35

4. A Korahite Levite, descended from no. 3 and father of Samuel

1Chr. 6:27, 34; 1 Sam. 1-2 (8 occurrences)

5. A Korahite Levite who was one of David’s warriors at Ziklag

1Chr. 12:6

6. A Levite who was one of two doorkeepers for the ark of the covenant

1Chr. 15:23

7. A high official in the court of Ahaz, assassinated by Zichri, an Ephraimite warrior

2Chr. 28:7

8. A Levite who was the ancestor of Berchiah son of Asa, who settled in Jerusalem after returning from the Babylonian Exile

1Chr. 9:16

Appendix 2

Summary of Proposed Derivations of Elkenah





1. Ilu-qana; ‘El qanah

God has Created [a Son]

Akkadian; Hebrew


2. ‘El qeni

El is Mighty



3. Il Kinahhi; El Chna

El of Canaan

Akkadian; Greek transliteration

God of [place/people]

4. ‘El Qini

El of the Kenites


God of [place/people]

5. dIl-gi-na

[uncertain, although possibly = no. 3 above]


[uncertain, although possibly = no. 3 above]

6. ‘l qn a[rs]; Elkuni[rsa]; ‘El qoneh

El the Creator [hypocoristic for El, Creator of the Earth]

Canaanite; Hittite; Hebrew

God + epithet


1. Paul Y. Hoskisson, “An Introduction to the Relevance of and a Methodology for a Study of the Proper Names of the Book of Mormon,” By Study and Also By Faith, John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds. (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990), 2:126-35, although focused on the Book of Mormon, provides useful methodological comments that can be applied to the study of the Book of Abraham onomasticon as well.

2. Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price, Part 8: Facsimile No.1, by the Figures,” Improvement Era 72/8 (August 1969): 75-87.

3. Stephen E. Thompson, “Egyptology and the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28/1 (Spring 1995): 143-60, correctly reads “the god of Elkenah” as “the god Elkenah,” but then assumes “the god of Pharaoh” must mean “the god Pharaoh” based on consistency of usage. Nibley made the opposite argument; he (correctly, in my view) observed that, since Pharaoh is a human king and is consistently represented as such in the text, “the god of Pharaoh” most likely means “the god worshiped by Pharaoh,” and then argued based on consistency of usage that “the god of Elkenah” means “the god worshiped by Elkenah,” as discussed above. I believe both of these scholars are wrong to assume consistency of usage. I believe Thompson is correct vis-a-vis Elkenah (Thompson points out that the reference in Abraham 1:7 to a “priest of Elkenah” and not a “priest of the god of Elkenah” supports this reading), but Nibley is correct vis-a-vis Pharaoh (there are a number of references to Pharaoh in the text, in which he is consistently portrayed as a human king and not in his divinized aspect). This reading is confirmed by Abraham 1:13b: “and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” The genitive with the first four names is epexegetic, meaning that they were themselves gods, but the construction is modified when it comes to describing the god worshiped by Pharaoh, a human king. Further support for this reading occurs at Abraham 1:17, which mentions “the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”

4. Nibley’s emphasis in his Era series was to lay out as many different possibilities as he could, without necessarily choosing the strongest among them. It remains for those who follow him to sift through the many tantalizing leads he provided and make these kinds of judgments.

5. There is often an ambiguity in ancient Hebrew theophoric names reflecting a medial yod, which could be either a first person pronominal suffix or an archaic genitive. So, for example, the name Melchizedek could mean either “My king is righteousness” or “King of righteousness.”

6. John Day, “Canaan, Religion of,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed. (hereafter ABD) (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:834.

7. M. Dietrich, O. Loretz and J. Sanmartin, eds., Die keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit einschliesslich der keilalphabetischen Texte ausserhalb Ugarits, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 24 (Kevelaer: Verlag Butzon & Berckes, 1976), 1:113.

8. Johannes C. de Moor, “EI, the Creator,” in G. Rendsburg, R. Adler, Milton Arfa and N. H. Winter, eds., The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon (New York: Ktav, 1980), 171-87, at 176.

9. The debate often centers around christological arguments over Proverbs 8:22. The meaning “acquire” predominates in Biblical Hebrew. In fact, Bruce Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22: Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99/2 (1980): 205-16, argues that it always means “acquire,” although most, such as the dated but still useful C. F. Burney, “Christ as the APXH of Creation,” Journal of Theological Studies 27 (1926): 160-77, acknowledge that in some biblical passages the verb does seem to mean “create.” But in the Ras Shamra tablets the verb definitely means “to create.” It now appears that there were two roots in West Semitic underlying Hebrew qanah, one meaning “to acquire” (*QNW) and the other meaning “to create” (*QNY). See R. N. Whybray, “Proverbs 8:22-31 and Its Supposed Prototypes,” Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965): 504-14; W. A. Irwin, “Where Will Wisdom Be Found?” Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 133-42; and Marvin H. Pope, EI in the Ugaritic Texts, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 2 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1955), 51.

10. Critics typically assume that the Book of Abraham is a nineteenth century production, and therefore claim that Joseph Smith simply adapted the name Elkenah from the biblical precedents. See, for example, http://www.mormonstudies.com/doctrn2.htm accessed March 15, 2007. While this is of course possible, it is my intention in this article openly to explore the possibility of an ancient origin for that book without making any such a priori assumption.

11. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price” (August 1969): 85-86.

12. The m at the end of these words is called mimation and falls into disuse after the Old Babylonian period.

13. M. Astour, “The Origin of the Terms ‘Canaan,’ ‘Phoenician,’ and ‘Purple,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24 (1965): 346-50, at 346.

14. G. Johannes Botterweck, H. Ringgren and Heinz-Josef Farby, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, David E. Green, trans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974-), 7:212.

15. Philip C. Schmitz, “Canaan (Place),” ABD, 1:828.

16. As a geographic name, Kinahhi usually appears with an -i genitive ending.

17. On the linguistic tendency toward the reduction of final double consonants to single consonants, see Zellig S. Harris, Development of the Canaanite Dialects (New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1939), 76.

18. Astour, “Origin of the Terms,” 346; Jack M. Sasson, “The Earliest Mention of the Name Canaan,” Biblical Archaeologist 47 (1984): 90.

19. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, eds., Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1979), 488.

20. Harold W. Attridge and Robert A. Oden, Jr., Philo of Byblos: The Phoenician History: Introduction, Critical Text, Translation, Notes, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 9 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981), 60-61 and n. 144; Albert I. Baumgarten, The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos: A Commentary (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 232.

21. Schmitz, “Canaan (Place),” 1:829.

22. E. A. Speiser, “The Name Phoinikes,” Language 12 (1936): 121-26.

23. B. Landsberger, “Uber Farben im Sumerisch-akkadischen,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 21 (1967):139-73, at 166-67.

24. G. Dossin, “Une mention de Canaaneens dans une lettre de Mari,” Syria: Revue d’Art Oriental et d’Archeologie 50 (1973), 277-82; Sasson, “Earliest Mention,” 90.

25. See Astour, “Origin of the Terms,” 346-50, and Schmitz, “Canaan (Place),” 1:829.

26. Wilhelm Gesenius, Lexicon Manuale Hebraicum et Chaldaicum in Veteris Testamenti Libros, translated by Samuel P. Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 405.

27. Astour, “Origin of the Terms,” 348.

28. Jeremiah 10:17 reads as follows: “Gather up thy wares out of the land, O inhabitant of the fortress.” The King James Version rendering “wares” of the hapax legomenon kin’a or kena’a is supported by the Targums [sechorta] and by Symmachus [emporia]. The Septuagint, however, has simply hypostasis, here evidently designating any bundle, load or burden set down from the shoulder or an animal back to the ground, thus showing how the word derives from *KN’. See Astour, “Origin of the Terms,” 347.

29. That the name was originally a generic term such as “the West” is suggested by the fact that it often appears with the definite article “the” (especially Egyptian p3); i.e., “the Canaan.”

30. If one accepts the Documentary Hypothesis, note that the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine are called “Canaanites” in J and P but “Amorites” in E and D. See Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33/1 (2000): 57-99. Note that E. Jan Wilson, “‘A Bird in the Hand .. .’: Some Thoughts on the Search for Abraham” (unpublished paper), independently suggests that the setting for Abraham 1 may have involved Amorites.

31. Stephen E. Thompson, “Egyptology and the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28/1 (Spring 1995): 143-60 at 152, in a misguided attempt to deny Joseph Smith even so much as a lucky guess, tries overhard to rebut this point. See the discussion of Thompson’s article in Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, Studies in the Book of Abraham 3 (Provo: FARMS, 2005), 122-24.

32. To summarize, the attested Akkadian forms reflect (1) two variations: (a) the pharyngeal consonant can be represented or not, and (b) the -n affix can be appended or not (this usage apparently being dependent on geographic location), and (2) two linguistic developments: (a) the dropping of mimation, and (b) the reduction of the final double consonant to a single consonant. The form Elkenah in the Book of Abraham reflects two additional linguistic developments, which are both easily predictable and actually attested in the later Hebrew and Greek forms: (1) the shift from Akkadian i to e or shewa, and (2) the dropping of the case endings. If proposal 3 is correct, then the only remaining ambiguity in Elkenah is whether the final -h represents the pharyngeal consonant or is simply to be taken with the preceding a vowel.

33. G. Pettinato, “Culto ufficiale ad Ebla durante it regno di Ibbi-Sipis,” Oriens Antiquus 18 (1979): 85-­215, at 103; Fritz Stolz, “Kanaan,” in Gerhard Krause and Gerhard Muller, eds., Theologische Realenzyklopadie, 30 vols. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1976-), 17:540. Also, note that in bilingual passages, the Sumerian determinative DINGIR (represented by the superscript d) equals ilu. See “ilu” in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1921-), 7:91.

34. See H. Michael Marquardt, “The Book of Abraham Revisited” (1983), 107 (a pamphlet reprint from The Journal of Pastoral Practice 5/4 (1983): 101-20).

35. There has been unfortunate confusion on this point since the Summer of 1968. Polemically oriented treatments occur at Robert L. and Rosemary Brown, They Lie in Wait to Deceive, Vol. 1 (Mesa: Brownsworth, 1981), 160, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Can the Browns Save Joseph Smith? (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1981), 23-27. Benjamin Urrutia, “The Joseph Smith Papyri,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4/2 (Summer 1969): 129-34 at 133, and Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price” (August 1969): 86, both equate Facsimile 1, Figure 5 (the hawk-headed canopic jar) with Duamutef (although Nibley gives the names in their standard order on p. 82). As noted above, these scholars appear to have been following Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hor,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/3 (Autumn 1968): 109-34 at 118. John Gee reports in his “Notes on the Sons of Horus” (Provo: FARMS, 1991), 43-44, that there was a certain ancient variation in the identification of the different heads of the canopic jars, and Baer’s equating of the hawk head with Duamutef is indeed attested in antiquity. Nevertheless, in its standard form the hawk-headed jar is a representation of Qebehsenuf. In addition to Gee, see the following: Richard A. Parker, “The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Preliminary Report,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/2 (Summer 1968): 86-88 at 86; Leonard H. Lesko, in his response to Thomas Stuart Ferguson, as reported in Stan Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates (Salt Lake City: Freethinkers Press in association with Smith Research Associates, 1996), 97; Michael D. Rhodes, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus,” BYU Studies 17 (Spring 1977): 259-74 at 272; and Thompson, “Egyptology and the Book of Abraham,” 152.

36. John M. Lundquist, “Was Abraham at Ebla? A Cultural Background of the Book of Abraham (Abraham 1 and 2),” in Studies in Scripture: Volume Two: The Pearl of Great Price, Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, eds. (Salt Lake City: Randall, 1985), 232, citing Anton Deimel, Pantheon Babylonicum oder Keilschriftkatalog der Babylo. Gn. (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1950), 48.

37. I am uncertain as to which LDS scholar deserves credit for first suggesting this connection. Stephen D. Ricks makes the suggestion in John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 75. The suggestion was also made in W. V. Smith, A Joseph Smith Commentary on the Book of Abraham: An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Abraham (W. V. Smith and The Book of Abraham Project [BOAP], 1993-1998), at n. 41. I also found a significant amount of information on this subject in the archives of the ANE Listserv at the University of Chicago for June 23, 1998 (Volume 1998, Number 171); John Tvedtnes of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU was one of the posters in that thread and had significant information on this epithet at his fingertips, which suggests that he may also have known about this proposal at that time. The archive is available at http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/research/library/ane/digest/1998/v.1998.n171 accessed March 18, 2007. Of course, another scholar may have noted this possibility even earlier, or perhaps several scholars noted the connection independently.

38. The Canaanite original is known from the Baal cycle of myths found in the Ras Shamra tablets.

39. Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., trans., Hittite Myths, Gary M. Beckman, ed. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 69­-70, 83.

40. For the Phoenician version, see H. Donner and W. Rollig, Kanaanaeische und Aramaische Inschriften (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1962), #26 A, III, line 18. A translation of the Hittite text may be found in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton University, 1969), 519. John Tvedtnes points out that there are Luvian correspondences for this title, on which see E. Laroche, “Etudes sur les Hieroglyphes Hittites,” Syria 31 (1954): 102-3.

41. P. D. Miller, Jr., “El, the Creator of the Earth,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 239 (1980): 43-46. This article also lists other Aramaic and Neo-Punic sources for this epithet.

42. Including Pope, EI in the Ugaritic Texts; Frank Moore Cross, “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962): 225-59, at 236; de Moor, “El, the Creator,” 171-87; John Day, “Canaan, Religion of,” ABD 1: 831; Lowell K. Handy, Among the Host of Heaven: The Syro-Palestinian Pantheon as Bureaucracy (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 34-37; and J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the Northwest Semitic Inscriptions, Part Two (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 1015­-16, which provides substantial additional bibliography.

43. For instance, the Sephardic transliteration method Joseph Smith learned from Joshua Seixas in the Kirtland Hebrew School does not distinguish kaph and qoph, using k for both (see J. Seixas, Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners [Andover: Gould and Newman, 1834], 5). As we have seen, Akkadian represented the guttural at the end of *KN’ (‘ayin in Hebrew) either with a hard h (like Hebrew heth) or not at all.

44. In general, see Frank Moore Cross, Jr., “el,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 1:242-53.

45. Numerous LDS scholars have argued for a northern location of Ur in Syria rather than the location in southern Mesopotamia. See Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price” (April 1969): 66-69 and Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1981), 49; Lundquist, “Was Abraham at Ebla?” 225-27; Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?” The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 119-36; John A. Tvedtnes, “Ur of the Chaldees’ and the Book of Abraham” (unpublished paper); and Gee and Ricks, “Historical Plausibility.” I concur with the position of these scholars. Wilson, “A Bird in the Hand,” strikes a cautionary note and argues for the southern location in Mesopotamia. If this position is correct, more research would be required to determine to what extent there may have been Canaanite influences there. The Amorite migrations mentioned by Wilson would certainly suggest a possible source of such influence.

46. Handy, Syro-Palestinian Pantheon, 69-95.

47. Lundquist, “Was Abraham at Ebla?” 232.

48. William James Adams, Jr., “Human Sacrifice and the Book of Abraham,” BYU Studies 9/4 (Summer 1969): 473-80. Adams’ conclusions also find support in a later study; see Alberto Ravinelli Whitney Green, The Role of Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975).

49. Thom Wayment, “Traditions of Child Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East” (unpublished paper), also addresses evidence for both Assyro-Babylonian and Egyptian practices of human sacrifice.

50. Intriguingly, near the end of his lengthy study, Green concludes that “almost all evidence of human sacrifice in the Palestinian region can be traced back to a northern origin around north Syria and south Anatolia. This northern strand may be traced chronologically from the Abraham-Isaac narrative based on seals and subsequently through each consecutive period.” See Green, Role of Human Sacrifice, 200.

51. John Day, “Canaan, Religion of,” 1:834.

52 John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Oriental Publishers, 1989), 70.

53. See Sakkunyaton’s “Phoenician Theology” preserved in fragments in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, i.l0.21, 34, 44, cited in Cross, “‘el,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 1:248.

54. Day, A God of Human Sacrifice, 86-91, in an appendix gives 19 quotations from classical and patristic sources attesting to Phoenician and Carthaginian practices of human and child sacrifice.

55. See the discussion in Wayment, “Traditions of Child Sacrifice.”

56. The Canaanites and the Phoenicians represent approximately the same culture. Scholars generally use the word “Canaanite” to refer to the period antedating roughly 1200 B.C., and the word “Phoenician” to refer to the period thereafter. “Punic” derives from the Latin form of “Phoenician” and has special reference to Carthage, a Phoenician colony founded on the north coast of Africa in the 9th century B.C.

57. Cross, “‘el,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 1:248.

58. In addition to Day, A God of Human Sacrifice, see also George C. Heider, The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 43 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1985), and George C. Heider, “Molech,” in ABD, 4:895-98.

59. Moshe Weinfeld, “The Worship of Molech and of the Queen of Heaven and its Background,” Ugarit­-Forschungen 4 (1972): 133-54.

60. Otto Eissfeldt, Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebraischen und das Ende des Gottes Moloch, Beitrage zur Religionsgeschichte des Altertums 3 (Halle, 1935).

61. This proposal can be found in John Day, Molech, where he argues that the existence of a god named Molech is suggested by a god mlk from two Ugaritic serpent charms, and an obscure god Malik/Malku from Akkadian god lists who in two texts was equated with Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of the underworld. A god of the underworld is just the kind of god one might worship in the valley of Ben-Hinnom rather than on a hill top.

62. Actually, if one were so inclined, one could make an argument that this deity is to be equated with El. It has been suggested that Molech is a dysphemism, the vowels having been tampered with by replacing them with the vowels of boshet “shame” (a process that has been demonstrated in the case of the corruption of Ashtart to Ashtoreth; cf also the use of Ishbosheth “man of shame” for Saul’s son Eshbaal “man of the lord,” as described in Hoskisson, “Proper Names,” 128-29). If that is true, the name in reality could be the generic melek “king” (especially since it is usually preceded by the definite article), in which event the reference would most likely be to El or Baal, the Canaanite deities most commonly designated as “king” in epithets (as in ‘I mlk, “El the King”).

63. One might ask why, if Abraham were almost killed by a Canaanite cult practice in Syria, he would choose to go to Canaan? There are three reasons. First, he was constrained to go somewhere due to famine. Second, the Lord commanded him to go to Canaan, for that was the land his posterity would eventually inherit. Third, it appears that child sacrifice at that time and place was instigated by the child’s father (as with Terah of Abraham, apparently Onitah of his three daughters, and Abraham of Isaac). By separating himself from his father’s household (and as he aged), Abraham would no longer be at risk for being made such a sacrifice. The Lord specifically told Abraham that he was removing him “from thy father’s house” (Abr. 1:16). In fact, although this is a speculative point, it may well be that Abraham actually worshiped the same deity as his father, but simply disapproved of the practices involving idolatry and child sacrifice. G. Pettinato calls Ebla “Canaanite Ebla” and notes that its god was referred to both as Ya and El; in fact, in one tablet a man changed his name from Mika-il to Mika-ya, pointing to an early convergence of these deities. See G. Pettinato, “The Royal Archives of Tell-Mardikh-Ebla,” Biblical Archaeologist 39 (May 1976): 48, cited in Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 49. In Abraham 1:18, Abraham’s God speaks to him and tells him the following: “Behold, I will lead thee by my hand, and I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee.” So while Abraham’s God says he will be with him, he promises to confirm the priesthood of Terah (Abraham’s father, who had attempted to sacrifice Abraham) upon him. This suggests to me the possibility that Abraham worshiped a version of the same God his father worshiped, but one shorn of idolatrous and child sacrificial associations. We may be seeing here some of the early stirrings of the eventual convergence of El into Ya (Yahweh).

64. On why a Canaanite deity would be represented by Egyptian symbols on the Facsimiles, see Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources.”

65. Adapted from Ronald Youngblood, “Elkanah,” ABD, 2:475-76.


  1. Kevin,
    You gave this as a conference paper, correct? How was it received? Does equating Elkenah with El of Canaan create any interesting consequences?

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I submitted it for a conference, but I was unable to make the trip to Provo at the time the conference ended up being held, so it was not actually presented.

    This paper was reviewed by a reading group consisting of other presenters at that conference (the Abraham’s World conference at BYU), and no one had any difficulties with it at that time.

    I can imagine, however, that some people might get a little nervous about my equating Elkenah with Canaanite El, due to the influence and relationship between that El and the Elohim/Yahweh later worshiped by the Israelites.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, Ronan, now that I think of it, I do recall an objection (voiced by a senior professor in Religious Education at BYU) to my suggestion that there was a Canaanite background to the Akedah.

  4. Christopher Smith says:

    >>Much like the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham is extant only in its English translation
    (and other translations based on the English text).


    We almost certainly have the document from which, at the very least, Joseph believed he was translating the BoA from. One of my main problems with your Semitic adaptation theory is that it seems to rely too much on John Gee’s deficient “missing papyrus” arguments. I am curious whether you have looked seriously into the problems with Gee’s hypothesis and whether you have your own means of alleviating the problem of the connection between the BoB and the BoA translation? Since this is a little off topic, feel free to email me and we can talk about it separately– I don’t want to completely hijack this article’s comments section.

    Other than that, your article is very well-argued and well-documented.


    jesusdied4u_01 at yahoo d o t com

  5. Christopher Smith says:

    By the way, it also seems a little problematic to have Elkenah be El of Canaan, since Biblical scholarship (and the Bible itself) tends to make Abraham a worshipper of El. After all, “To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make the name Yahweh known to them” (Exodus 6:3). Melchizedek, to whom Abraham gave a tithe, was a priest of El. Yahweh does not appear in the archaeological record until the 13th c. BC or so. I suppose Abraham might have distinguished “El of Canaan” from his own, more enlightened version of El, rather like how the anti-Mormons accuse the Saints of worshipping a “different Jesus.”

    And finally, it is worth noting that the vocalization of the name in the original translation manuscripts is not quite the same as in the final version. At least one of Joseph’s scribes sometimes hyphenated the name thusly: “Elk-keenah” and there appears to have been some confusion (perhaps due to JS’s New York accent) about whether the final two letters should be “ah” or “er.” Both of Joseph’s scribes wrote the name with two k’s, which probably indicates that he distinctly pronounced that consonant twice. That helps establish a word break in roughly the right spot for the etymologies you suggested in your article, but then again, having the first part be “Elk” rather than “El” somewhat muddies the waters.

  6. Costanza says:

    Joseph Smith had a New York accent? Fuhgeddaboudit

  7. Christopher Smith says:

    Yeah, I never really pictured him with a New York accent till Brent Metcalfe mentioned it one day. Then I had to go back and re-read some of his sermons with the accent. :-)

  8. Kevin–this post is next on my list to read. As you know, I am particularly interested in this subject. THANK YOU. I wish I had time to read it right now. Reading it will be my “Good Friday” present to myself.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Christopher, in my Semitic Adaptation article I expressly disclaimed Sensen Papyrus issues as being for the most part beyond the scope of the essay, which was focused on the Facsimiles. I didn’t intend to convey a Unified Field Theory of all BoA issues in one article.

    Personally, I am open, but not beholden, to a missing papyrus theory. As you point out, the problems with that require significant work on the KEP, but that work hasn’t been done yet, and it is premature in my view to claim that we have a full understanding of just what the hell those guys thought they were doing in that project. Brent has made some headway toward that end, and so has Brian Hauglid, but they’re not done with their work yet and nothing has been published, and Nibley’s study is hopelessly dated. I believe in scholarly humility and waiting for the evidence to come in before leaping to conclusions.

    I am not, however, necessarily committed to a missing papyrus theory. I am open to other views, such as a catalyst theory, etc. I’m even open to it being a modern pseudepigraphon. Right now I am just open minded about it all.

    This paper explicitly talks about the possibility that Abraham actually worshiped a version of the El his father Terah worshiped, in a footnote near the end. I actually think this is likely, for the reasons I adduce in the footnote.

    I mention the alternate KEP spelling in the discussion of weighting the different possibilities.

    Thank you for sharing your comments on the piece.

  10. Christopher Smith says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I hope I didn’t come across as being overly arrogant or adversarial in my last post. I certainly don’t mean to minimize the work you’ve done; it is by far the best and most clear-headed defense of the Book of Abraham currently in print.

    >>This paper explicitly talks about the possibility that Abraham actually worshiped a version of the El his father Terah worshiped, in a footnote near the end. I actually think this is likely, for the reasons I adduce in the footnote.

    >>I mention the alternate KEP spelling in the discussion of weighting the different possibilities.

    My apologies. I had only given the paper a preliminary reading, and hadn’t gotten to the footnotes yet. I also missed the part where you mentioned the “-er” variant. Your suggestion in note 63 that Abraham may have only disapproved of human sacrifice but not of the worship of Elkenah seems precluded by chapter 1 verses 12 and 17, in which Abraham’s deity describes a turning away from “me” in favor of “the god of Elkenah” et. al. The Book of Abraham seems to understand Elkenah as distinct from Abraham’s God.

    >>in my Semitic Adaptation article I expressly disclaimed Sensen Papyrus issues as being for the most part beyond the scope of the essay, which was focused on the Facsimiles. I didn’t intend to convey a Unified Field Theory of all BoA issues in one article.

    In your SA article you stated that “it would be proper for the Egyptologists to evaluate the authenticity of Joseph’s proffered explanations without taking into account the English Book of Abraham (the papyrus source of which no longer being extant).” Indeed, that we do not have the original papyrus from which JS translated the BoA seems to be a foundational assumption in the entire article. You also suggest in several places that the BoA was affixed by J-Red to the end of the BoB roll. Aside from the practical difficulties of such a suggestion, there is the problem of negative evidence. When Gustav Seyffarth catalogued the BoB roll in the Chicago Museum prior to the great fire, he identified an invocation of Osiris on behalf of Horus and a facsimile that answers the description of facsimile 3. He did not mention any other text, although if a Hebrew text about Abraham were affixed I think we could be certain he would have noticed it. I have not found any even remotely compelling evidence for the missing papyrus hypothesis in what I have read of Gee’s writings.

    Your article also follows Gee in suggesting that the margin-characters in the KEP were a botched reverse-engineering attempt, but no Metcalfe-esque analysis of the documents is necessary for a realization of how problematic that suggestion is. One need look no further than the Joseph Smith diary, which places the extensive work on the alphabet and grammar project prior to the November translation push. There’s also no way that the majority of the alphabet and grammar material could have been derived by reverse engineering. The rules and vocabulary in the Alphabet and Grammar appear to form a partial basis for the BoA translation, rather than the other way around (see for example the first two pages of the bound Grammar, which tell us we can get up to 625 words from a single Egyptian character).

    In any case, I do encourage you to look into the validity of Gee’s arguments, because I think it would be best if you could make sure your cart isn’t tied to his horse. I wish I could point you to some professional critics’ exhaustive rebuttal of those arguments, but the critics seem to be taking this lying down. Probably they are deferring to Metcalfe’s eventual publication. I have written some forum posts and a couple short articles on this subject, so if you are interested I can send them to you/point you to them.


  11. Excellent paper, Kevin. Thanks for making it available.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    I thought I made it clear in my adaptation article that I was following a missing papyrus view in that article, even though I am open to other possibilities. (I am a lawyer, and lawyers argue in the alternative all the time.)

    I seriously am not going to draw hard and fast conclusions on this until there is a solid critical text of the KEP available. I simply am not going to take anyone else’s word for anything on this topic; I want to be able to examine the texts for myself. I know what things look like superficially, but I’m unwilling to take a superficial approach.

    At ZLMB Brent made fun of my unwillingness to draw hard and fast conclusions based solely on the Marquardt edition. But ironically perhaps it was seeing his own color photos that made it perfectly clear to me how totally inadequate that edition is (through no fault of Marquardt’s; it’s just the nature of the microfilm reproductions). What scholar worth his salt would do so, when the originals are extant (and are in the process of being carefully studied), and when high quality color images are in the hands of certain others? In any real scholarly discipline that would never happen.

    I have tried to convince Brent that the focus needs to be on understanding the KEP thoroughly first, much like Skousen’s detailed work on the BoM text. There will be plenty of time for polemical argumentation later, but it is all premature until we really understand the documents. Brent doesn’t see it that way and has dived into the polemical end of the pool from the beginning. I consider him a friend, but I disagree with him in this approach, and I think it’s short-sighted.

    What the KEP needs right now is scholarship, not polemics. Brent is trying to mix the two, and I disagree with that approach.

    (As an analogy, I think he should do what Vogel did: start with a scholarly presentation of the documents in his five-volume Early Mormon Documents series, and then give his interpretation of those documents separately, in his Making of a Prophet book. Brent needs to produce the KEP equivalent of EMD. The critical edition needs to present impeccable scholarship, and a polemical axe to grind [either way] is going to interfere with that.)

  13. Kevin in 12. Amen. I have a paper in at a journal right now that contextualizes Phelps (Smith’s rather strenuous ghost-writer and “polyglot” scribe) and the KEP. I’m trying now to finish a paper that I think helps to contextualize the KEP better (not a Skousen textual, but a cultural contextualization of the project), though I agree that the Part 2 of KEPE1 is quite muddled orthographically and structurally. I find KEPE1 Part 1 to be reasonably interpretable. I will confess though that I’m not terribly interested at this stage in the relationship between BoA and KEP. I’m more interested in a cultural history of KEP as documents in their own right.

  14. Oh, and before people are practicing the Pygmalian hermeneutics Christopher suggests, I’m not aware of much actual data on the nature of the Vermont/Massachusetts accent (Western New York was still largely a New England melting pot of fresh migrants without a stable “New York accent” to speak of in those first decades of the 19th century, and Smith’s accent formation would have occurred in Vermont to a large extent, perhaps with some influence from Topsfield, though peers determine accent more than parents.) So you may be able to call a cab with Smith’s accent, but I’m not certain you’ll gain much if anything by attempting to apply an accentual hermeneutics to Smith’s preaching.

  15. Christopher Smith says:

    >>I thought I made it clear in my adaptation article that I was following a missing papyrus view in that article, even though I am open to other possibilities.

    I’m sure you’re right, but I didn’t get that impression. I think my biggest objection to the article was that you left the reader with the impression that the Semitic Adaptation Theory has absolutely no downside besides flying in the face of traditional autographic assumptions.

    >>There will be plenty of time for polemical argumentation later, but it is all premature until we really understand the documents. Brent doesn’t see it that way and has dived into the polemical end of the pool from the beginning. I consider him a friend, but I disagree with him in this approach, and I think it’s short-sighted.

    Well, while I think we have more than enough evidence at the present time to draw some basic conclusions about the function and production of these documents, I can at least respect your desire to suspend judgment until all the facts are in. I think it is sincere, though I can’t say the same for everyone on the LDS side of the fence. I get the feeling that Gee is just stalling for time until he can come up with a better theory to explain the evidence.

  16. Christopher Smith says:

    That last statement was probably too candid. Please disregard it.

  17. Chris, for my papers, I’ve reviewed the KEP and the current writings about them. I’m far from convinced that the evidence currently published is clear, and I personally (despite being a believing LDS) have no particular investment in an Egyptian provenance for the BoA and tend to believe that our most reliable insights from KEP and BoA do not depend on Egyptological insight or concordance.

  18. Christopher Smith says:


    The evidence on a few minor points remains unclear, but for the most part I think we can ascertain with a fair degree of certainty what these documents are all about. I say that, though, as someone who has looked into the documents carefully on my own time, not as someone who is relying on secondary literature. I acknowledge that if we had to take Ashment’s and Nibley’s word for it, things would still be might murky. Rebuttals of some of Nibley’s worst arguments simply haven’t been published yet.

    And by the way, I’m not just a foam-at-the-mouth critic, either. I continue to hold out hope that the Book of Mormon will be shown to be an inspired document.


    Just a minor nitpick. Your article says, “Was Elkenah the name of a god, a place or a person? Each appearance of the name ‘Elkenah’ in the text is preceded by ‘the god of,’ ‘the gods of’ (when part of a sequence), ‘the priest of’ or ‘the altar of.'” There is one place, however, where Elkenah is preceded by “the gods of” but is not part of a sequence:

    “Thou didst send thine angel to deliver me from the gods of Elkenah, and I will do well to hearken unto thy voice, therefore let thy servant rise up and depart in peace.” Abr. 2:13

    This usage can be fairly easily explained within your proposed framework, since you have posited that Elkenah is preeminent among the “gods of this land.” “The gods of Elkenah” would simply refer to the gods over whom Elkenah presides. Still, I thought it was worth bringing to your attention.


  19. Chris, I’d be interested to hear what you mean. I hope with my paper to propose a preliminary hermeneutics of the KEP, and I have not yet seen any compelling treatment of KEP from either camp. I don’t think the nature of the documents is secret, but I think the discussion to date has been so heavily polemicized as to be a murky muddle. By way of disclosure, I favor a reasonable (con)textual association between KEP and BoA. They certainly partake of very similar milieux. What they (and that) mean, I think is much less certain.

  20. Sam, can you tell us what journal your paper will be published in?


  21. Doc, too early to say. I’ll let you know how publication sorts out. Still trying to determine whether to use Mormon journals or broader religious studies journals.

  22. Jonathan Green says:

    Kevin, while looking through your paper and the comments, I noticed two things:

    1. What does KEP stand for? Is it the papyrus used for the Book of Abraham?

    2. Your paper would be better off without the sentence “This word actually is a distant ancestor of English ‘knee’ (by way of Greek gonu, gnu).” While there are some loan words from Semitic into Indo-European daughter languages by way of Greek, the PIE root for “knee” is attested all over Indo-European, including the dialects far off the beaten path, and knees aren’t really the kind of cultural innovation where one might expect to find a loan word for the latest fad in the Levant. There are theories that posit a common ancestor for PIE, Semitic, and other language families, but they are still largely the province of loons, crackpots, and statisticians. Your paper would be better off if it didn’t appeari to involve itself in that argument.

  23. Jonathan, it stands for Kirtland Egyptian Papers. The FAIR Wiki has some background info.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Chris, I missed that one.

    Thanks, Jonathan, I appreciate your expert advice. I tossed that in merely as an etymological curiousity, so I’ll delete it upon further publication. J. Stapley already mentioned that KEP means Kirtland Egyptian Papers. I also happened to write the FAIR Wiki article J. links to. It has some errors in it and does not reflect the latest research, but it conveys the basic idea of what these documents are.

  25. Christopher Smith says:


    What I mean is that while a few details of transcription, coloration, and chemical ink analysis are not clear/possible from the black-and-white photocopies, those photocopies (coupled with other historical data) are adequate for discerning the purpose of the documents. They are even more adequate for discerning what their purpose was not— namely, a reverse-engineering experiment. I agree with you, though, that analysis of the documents is far from over, and that nobody from either side has yet published a really thorough study.

    By the way, you should run your paper by Brent Metcalfe before submitting it for publication. He’d probably have some good feedback and he’d undoubtedly appreciate having access to an advance copy of the article while writing his book.


  26. Paul Osborne says:

    When I read the BofA within its own context it appears to me that Elkenah was a mortal man having his own priestly cohort dedicated to his god of choice – a state god. This god is figuratively represented by one of the characters under the Lion Couch.

    In turn, there were four other kings mentioned in the narrative: Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and Pharaoh. Figurative images of their gods are conveniently located under the Lion Couch. Bear in mind, however, the images under the couch are simply Egyptian proxies and are not the literal image of the gods they represent.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion.

    Paul Osborne


  27. Chris: Aha. I don’t believe what I’ve seen of the reverse engineering thesis either, though I think that may be an unnecessarily narrow attempt to mediate the relationship between glyph, papyrus, and revelatory experience.

    I should send a copy to Brent. People have his email?

  28. Christopher Smith says:

    Sam, open a mormondiscussions.com account and send a PM to Brent Metcalfe.

  29. Christopher Smith says:


    I was hoping you might clarify a couple points. In your paper you write,

    >>‘El qoneh “El the Creator.” This would be a hypocoristic form of the well attested Canaanite epithet ‘l qn ars, “El, Creator of the Earth,” which is itself a shorter version of the later and longer form of the epithet found at Gen. 14:19, 22: ‘el ‘elyon qoneh shamayim we’arets “EI Most High, Creator of the Heaven and the Earth.”37 In a Hittite myth borrowed from Canaan prior to 1200 B.C.38 El is called “Elkunirsa” (the Hittite spelling of West Semitic ‘I qn ars). This El was the husband of the goddess Asherah (=Ashertu) and lived in a tent at the headwaters of the Euphrates (=Mala) River.39

    >>Kinahhi itself is attested earlier than number six, and this proposal does not require that we posit a hypocoristic form.

    Two questions:

    1) Is the hypocorism el qoneh ever attested that you are aware? I gather from your article that it is not. Wouldn’t that significantly reduce the likelihood that this is the epithet intended? I also wonder whether an opponent of the deity (i.e. Abraham) would apply to it an optional epithet intended to convey its sovereignty as creator of heaven and earth.
    2) You mention that Kinahhi is attested earlier than ‘l qn ‘ars. Can you give us an idea as to how early each of these is attested?

    I do like number 5. While we know absolutely nothing about this mysterious Mesopotamian deity, it is at least attested in basically the form the BoA leads us to expect (which seemingly can’t be said for either 3 or 6), and that form is given as if it is the deity’s proper name, rather than El + a fawning epithet. On the other hand, we have no reason to think that this relatively unknown god would have the sort of preeminence attributed to Elkenah in the BoA (“gods of Elkenah,” for example).

    Number 3 appears to me to be the best of your options. I’d feel better about it if it were attested, though. The BoA repeats the name Elkenah over and over, like it’s a coherent unit, a proper name. It doesn’t switch between epithets the way a lot of Syrian texts seem to do.


  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Chris, I’m not aware of an attestation of the specific hypocoristic form El Qoneh.

    Kinahhi is attested in the Tell El Amarna letters and at Bogazkoy.

    No. 3 is my personal favorite.


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