Book of Abraham Insight #6
The Book of Abraham tells how Abraham’s kinsmen worshipped idols. One of these was the god of Elkenah (Abraham 1:6). When Abraham preached against the worship of this god, he said that his kinsmen “hearkened not unto [his] voice, but endeavored to take away [his] life by the hand of the priest of Elkenah” (v. 7). Not only did the priest try to take Abraham’s life, but “this priest had offered upon this altar three virgins at one time . . . because of their virtue; they would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone, therefore they were killed upon this altar” (v. 11).1 Fortunately, the angel of the Lord delivered Abraham out of the priest’s hands before he could be sacrificed (vv. 15–20; Facsimile 1).
What do we know about the ancient god Elkenah? No deity of that name is mentioned in the KJV Bible,2 but in the last century archaeologists have unearthed evidence of his worship.
Elkenah is very likely the shortened form of the name of the Canaanite god El koneh aratz, meaning “God who created the earth” (or “God, creator of earth”). Among the ancient Hittites living in Asia Minor he was known as Elkunirsha.4
Originally a Canaanite deity, his worship spread to the Hittite capital of Hattusha in northern Turkey, to Karatepe near the border of modern Turkey and Syria, to Palmyra in inland Syria, to Jerusalem, and to Leptis Magna in Libya. All told, Elkunirsha was worshipped for more than 1500 years—from the time of Abraham to the time of Christ.5
We know something about Elkunirsa [Elkenah] from a Canaanite myth that was preserved by the Hittites.6 Unfortunately, the clay tablets containing this myth are broken, so we do not have all the story. One scholar summarized the story as follows:
Ashertu, the wife of Elkunrisha, attempts to seduce Ba’al [the storm god]. The Storm-god reveals everything to her husband and insults her on his inspiration. Thirsting for revenge, Ashertu regains the favor of her husband who then lets her do whatever she likes with Ba’al. The goddess Anat now comes to the scene. Having overheard the conversation between Elkurnisha and Ashertu, she warns Ba’al.7
Then the text breaks off.
The details of this myth may be unsavory, but it is somewhat reminiscent of the situation described in the Book of Abraham: “These virgins were offered up because of their virtue; they would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone, therefore they were killed upon this altar, and it was done after the manner of the Egyptians” (Abraham 1:11). One way of reading this passage is that worshipping the local gods would involve sexual acts in some way. Some have suggested that the Elkunirsha myth was ritually enacted, but because of the fragmentary nature of the surviving texts, how (or even if) this myth was ritualized is disputed.8
What is clear is that, along with the other deities in the text,9 the god Elkenah mentioned in the Book of Abraham has very likely been identified in the ancient world and was featured in a myth involving violence and sexual acts.
John Gee, “The Idolatrous Gods of Pharaoh,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (2019): forthcoming.
Kevin Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 22–35.
1 The ancient Hittites recorded myths about deities engaging in sexual acts with mortals, myths that were possibly enacted in ritual dramas. One class of cult specialists among the ancient Hittites were the šuppiššareš, literally “virgins.” There may even have been a rare instance of the Hittite king and queen enacting a “fertility rite” of some sort that included sexual intercourse, although the evidence for this isn’t entirely clear. See Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Sexualität(sexuality). B. Bei den Hethitern,” in Reallexikon der Assyriologie 12 (5/6) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 427–430. The sacrifice of the “virgins” in Abraham 1:11 to the idolatrous gods of the Chaldeans might be read in this context.
2 The name Elkanah appears in the KJV Bible as a male personal name. It is, for example, the name of the prophet Samuel’s father (1 Samuel 1:1, 4, 8, 19, 21, 23). A form of the name appears in the Hebrew Bible as a divine epithet (e.g. Genesis 14:19, 22), but in the KJV it is translated (“God, possessor of heaven and earth”) as opposed to transliterated as a proper name/epithet (El elyon koneh shamayim wa aratz). The personal name Elkanah in the Bible is derived from this divine name/epithet.
3 W. Röllig, “El-Creator-Of-The-Earth,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 280–281; Kevin Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 22–35.
4 Ben H. L. Gessel, Onomasticon of the Hittite Pantheon (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998), 1:63; Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 82–83; Maciej Popko, Religions of Asia Minor (Warsaw: Academic Publications Dialog, 1995), 128; N. Wyatt, “Asherah,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 101.
5 Patrick D. Miller, Jr. “El, The Creator of Earth,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 239 (1980): 43–46; F.O. Hvidberg-Hansen, “Uni-Ashtarte and Tanit-Iuno: Two Phonecian Goddesses of Fertility Reconsidered from Recent Archaeological Discoveries,” in Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean: First International Conference on Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean. University of Malta, 2–5 September 1985, ed. Anthony Bonanno (Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner Publishing Company, 1985), 170–171.
6 “Although the particular events of this tale are not known from the mythological tablets recovered at Ugarit, the story certainly belongs to the corpus of northern Syrian myths which they represent.” Gary Beckman, “Elkurniša and Ašertu (1.55),” in The Context of Scripture, Volume 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 149; cf. Heinrich Otten, “Ein kanaanäischer Mythus aus Boğazköy,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung 1 (1953): 125–150.
7 Popko, Religions of Asia Minor, 128. See also Beckman, “Elkurniša and Ašertu (1.55),” 149.
8 Popko, Religions of Asia Minor, 106; Meindert Dijkstra, “Let Sleeping Gods Lie?” in Reflections on the Silence of God: A Discussion with Marjo Korpel and Johannes de Moor, ed. Bob Becking (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 74–75; Mary R. Bachvarova, “Adapting Mesopotamian Myth in Hurro-Hittite Rituals at Hattuša Ištar, the Underworld, and the Legendary Kings,” in Beyond Hatti: A Tribute to Gary Beckman, ed. Billie Jean Collins and Piotr Michalowski (Atlanta, GA: Lockwood Press, 2013), 30–33. How much ritualized sexual activity occurred in various ancient cultures is an intensely debated question for nearly all cultures where it is alleged to have occurred. The Book of Abraham does not explicitly confirm or deny the practice though it suggests that it was practiced by some in Abraham’s day.
9 John Gee, “The Idolatrous Gods of Pharaoh,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (2019): forthcoming.