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El, Baal, and Allah: The Translatability of Divine Names in Ancient Israel and Contemporary Indonesia.

The process of translating divine names has always been a complicated and daunting task. It requires a mastery of cross-cultural understanding, and the process is not always peaceful. The recent polemics against the use of the word "Allah" to translate the word "God" in Arabic-speaking or predominantly Muslim countries, including in Indonesia, is an example of the complicated nature of the translation process. (1) Unsurprisingly, the complexity of translating divine names is attested not only in the modern era but also in antiquity. The Old Testament (OT), for instance, retains memories of both non-polemical appropriation of "El" and polemical appropriation of "Baal" in ancient Israel.

The purpose of this study is to evaluate the Christian use of the word Allah in contemporary Indonesia by comparing it with the appropriations of El and Baal in ancient Israel. To that end, I first analyze the usage of El and Baal in ancient Israel. This study finds that the words El and Baal were initially used both as appellatives and as personal names. However, both words later evolved in opposite ways--the sense of El became more generic, whereas, the name Baal developed to be more associated with the storm deity in the Ugaritic religion. These conceptual developments then led to the successful assimilation of El into the Israelite religion and the vehement opposition against Baal.

By using the development of El and Baal as analogies, I contend that the development of the word Allah, which also can function as both an appellative and personal name in contemporary Indonesia, is at a crossroads to develop like either El or Baal. That said, I maintain that, instead of allowing the word Allah to be used only in a personal sense, it is necessary to promote the appellative use of Allah. By doing so, unnecessary polarization and conflicts between Christianity and Islam in Indonesia may be avoided. In fact, it is crucial that Allah, like El in ancient Israel, continues its role as a figure of divine translatability in the effort to build a bridge for interfaith dialogue in contemporary Indonesia.

Is Allah like El or Baal?

In the discussion about the meaning of Allah and its use by Christians, two proposals are prominent. First, the word Allah was etymologically a generic term referring to the class of deities in Arabic. According to the proponents of this position, Allah functions like the word El in the OT, namely as a generic noun for God. (2) They regard the word Allah as a contraction of al ilah (the god) or the Syriac alaha (the god). (3) They also quickly point out that Allah has been used since before the time of Muhammad, as evidenced by the discovery of inscriptions containing the word Allah from as early as the fifth century BCE in northern and southern Arabia. (4) With this evidence, they claim that Allah should not be understood as only a proper name of the Islamic God and that its use by Christians is legitimate.

The second position believes that the word Allah is the personal name of God in Islam. For the proponents of this proposal, the term Allah functions like the word Baal, referring to a specific deity. Timothy Tennent, for one, believes that Allah, which was originally a generic name like El, has developed like the word Baal and lost its original generic sense. He asserts, "We should not be too surprised that this subtle but important shift has occurred in the Islamic use of the term Allah because it is similar to what happened with the Canaanite term Baal. This term was previously a generic word for 'lord, master,' but eventually became identified with particular forms of pagan Canaanite worship." (5) According to this view, Allah refers to a specific deity, namely the god of Islam. Two camps emerge from this position: those who believe that the use of Allah by Christians is unjustified because it refers to a different god and those who believe that Christians can still use the word Allah because the God of Islam and Christianity is one and the same. (6)

As in many contexts in which the Christian use of Allah has been controversial, the dispute over the use of the name Allah by Indonesian Christians revolves around similar questions: Does the word Allah function like El or Baal? And what are its ramifications? To respond to these questions, we should first examine the development of the use of El and Baal in ancient Israel. Only after that can we compare the development of Allah in contemporary Indonesia with those of El and Baal in ancient Israel and comprehend its implications.

Translating God in ancient Israel

Since the publication of Otto Eissfeldt's seminal article "Yahweh and El" in 1956, it has generally been accepted that, unlike the ubiquitous records of the conflictual relationship between Yahweh and Baal, there is no indication of any tension between the words Yahweh and El in the OT. (7) The acceptance of El and the rejection of Baal in the OT pose a difficult problem concerning the rationale behind the different attitudes. In what follows, I examine the developments of El and Baal, especially their appropriation in the religion of ancient Israel.

The non-polemical appropriation of El

Two preliminary remarks need to be addressed concerning the use of the term El. First, El can function as both an appellative and personal name in Northwest Semitic languages. Prior to the discovery of the Ugaritic tablets at Ras Shamra in 1929, it was generally accepted that El was originally an appellative even though El-theophoric names are attested among all the Semitic peoples. (8) Nevertheless, with the decipherment of the Ugaritic mythology texts dating to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 14th to 12th centuries BCE), it is now beyond doubt that El was the personal name of the highest deity in the Ugaritic pantheon. (9) In fact, the use of El as a proper name was more prominent than as an appellative in the Northwest Semitic religions. (10) Second, the Canaanite El is portrayed in the Ugaritic texts with characteristics that are similar to El in the biblical texts. (11)

These observations prompt the inevitable questions: Was El in the Old Testament and the Ugaritic myths the same deity? Or was El only used in the OT as an appellative to refer to the class of deities? Frank Moore Cross approached these issues by tracing the etymology of El. Having observed that El was primarily used as a proper name despite its ability to function as an appellative in the Ugaritic myths, he analyzed various El epithets in the OT and concluded that El in the OT should be primarily understood as a proper name referring to the high god in the Canaanite religion. Cross observed, "While 'il may be used, of course, as an appellative of deity, for example in such an expression as 'il Haddu, 'the god Haddu,' such usage is relatively rare. In mythic texts, in epic texts, in pantheon lists and temple records 'II is normally a proper name." (12) In a similar vein, Mark S. Smith contends that El in the OT refers to El in the Canaanite religion. His observations that Deuteronomy 32:6-7's descriptions of Yahweh echo the traditional description of El and that Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs according to Exodus 6:2-3 prompt him to opine that the author of Exodus 6:2-3 "identified Yahweh with the traditions of the great Canaanite god, El." (13) Simply put, Cross and Smith assumed that there was a continuity between Israel's religious tradition and its ancient Near Eastern parallels.

Cross's and Smith's methods to understand the concept of El in the OT by tracing its etymology and its use in the Canaanite religion are not without problems. Terrence Wardlaw, for instance, correctly points out that in the philological analysis of El like the one performed by Cross, "the locus of meaning moves from the text and its linguistic and conceptual structure to prior, hypothetical (reconstructed) stages of history (i.e., etymology)." (14) Furthermore, it is crucial to note that the use of the same word or name, or even some characteristics for two or more entities, does not necessarily indicate that they are the same. In order to determine what the ancient Israelites meant when they used the name El, we need to examine how they conceptualized the divine name because "the idea of God takes shape within frameworks of thought." (15)

How did the ancient Israelites conceptualize the term El? In his analysis of the use of this term in the book of Genesis, Rolf Rendtorff finds the following. First, the word El appears in the book of Genesis mostly in the genitival construction and linked to certain places, which makes it unlikely to function as a proper name. (16) Unlike its historical use as predominantly a proper name, El in the book of Genesis simply means the deity of a certain place. Second, there is no direct reference of the biblical El in Genesis to the Canaanite El. Instead, El is used to refer to both Yahweh and other deities. (17) Third, following his examination of the various uses of El with adjectives, he concludes that there is no reason to interpret the word [phrase omitted] "El" in the context of non-Israelite religions. (18) Instead, El with adjectives in the book of Genesis, according to Rendtorff, is not used as a proper name but a generic term with adjectives that function to explain the attributes of the deity in question. (19)

John van Seters arrives at the same conclusion based on his analysis of the use of El epithets with its associations with cultic elements, such as trees, pillars, and altars. He convincingly argues that El was not used because of its association with the highest deity in the Canaanite religions but because it retained the meaning of supreme deity. In his words, "All these references to [El] epithets are not archaic survivals of an earlier age but represent an increasing effort to identify Yahweh with the one universal deity reflected in the use of the term 'el" (20) In brief, the use of El epithets by biblical authors, even when they are associated with Canaanite cultic objects, does not reflect the connection with early Canaanite religion but an attempt to identify Yahweh as the supreme deity.

The ancient Israelites' conception of El as the supreme being was not unique. In fact, the use of the word El in a generic sense was popular in the first millennium BCE. (21) The use of El to refer to the supreme being regardless of religious beliefs is evidenced, for example, in the episode of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. In the Balaam narrative, King Balak of Moab summoned Balaam son of Peor, a non-Israelite prophet, to curse Israel. Besides the biblical texts, the name Balaam son of Peor is also attested in the Deir 'Alia inscription, which was first found in 1964 in southern Transjordan. (22) In the Deir Alla inscription, Balaam prophesied in the name of El without any reference to Yahweh, but in the biblical account of Balaam, El was identified with Yahweh without any hesitation. Was El in the Deir 'Alla inscription identical to the biblical El in Numbers 22-24? The answer to this question depends on the sense of the word El in the Deir 'Alla inscription.

Joel S. Burnett points out that El in the Deir 'Alla inscription should not be understood as referring to a specific deity. In his words, "El is invoked at Dayr 'Alla not as the national god of the Israelites, Ammonites, or any other kingdom but rather in his traditional role as the head of 'the gods' as a whole, a notion of pantheon commonly acknowledged throughout ancient Syria-Palestine and thus providing a broader, potentially international framework for considering the divine." (23) Apparently, in the first millennium BCE, El had lost its sense as a proper name and become a word that represents the supreme being of any religious beliefs. Although it no longer referred to the Canaanite El, the word El still retained the reference to the role of El in the Canaanite religion, namely as the supreme being. In that sense, El was readily identified with Yahweh in the Israelite religion because it was conceptualized as the supreme God of Israel. In other words, El became "a figure of divine translatability" since any religious beliefs could identify their deities with El. (24) This feature of El made possible the successful assimilation of El into the Yahwistic faith without polemics.

The polemical appropriation of Baal

Unlike El, Baal's appropriation into the Yahwistic faith occurred with polemics, which eventually led to a complete rejection of the name Baal and its characteristics. Before we proceed to the discussion of how the appropriation of Baal failed, two things need to be mentioned. First, similar to El, Baal can function as both an appellative and personal name. With this discovery of the god-list at Abu Salabikh (ca. 2600 BCE) where the god Baal is mentioned along with other deities, an older scholarly consensus that the word Baal was initially used as an appellative was challenged because the insertion of an appellative name in the list of divinities is unlikely. (25) Baal as a personal name of a distinct god is also supported by the Ugaritic texts: for instance, The Baal Cycle, in which Baal was depicted as the storm god in the Ugaritic pantheon. The OT preserves the use of Baal as both a generic noun and personal name. In the OT, the generic sense of this word can mean "master/owner" (Ex. 21:34; 22:12), "husband" (Gen. 20:3; Ex. 21:3, 22; 2 Sam. 11:26), ruler of a specific place (Josh. 24:11; Judg. 9:2; 1 Sam. 23:11), and a master of a certain skill or activity (Gen. 37:19; Ex. 24:14). However, Baal (always with the article) is used more frequently as a reference to a specific deity. (26)

Second, Yahweh is described in the OT to possess characteristics comparable to Baal in the Ugaritic mythology. Scholars have noted the similarities between Psalm 29 and an ancient Baal hymn. (27) Also, the description of Baal as storm god is echoed in Psalm 104:3-4, "[Yahweh] makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire" (ESV). Like Baal who defeated Yam (sea), so did Yahweh in Job 26:12-13: "By his power he stilled the sea; by his understanding he shattered Rahab. By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent" (ESV). Moreover, the theophanic descriptions of Yahweh and those of Baal are so strikingly similar that Cross contended, "Israel used traditional Canaanite language in early descriptions of Yahweh's theophany, and it is this traditional poetic language, objectified and historicized in excessively literal prose that we find in the Epic accounts of the revelation at Sinai." (28) Interestingly, the Bible also preserves evidence that Yahweh could be referred to as Baal (or lord). According to 1 Chronicles 12:5 (MT 12:6), one of David's warriors was Bealiah, whose name means "Yahweh is Baal (lord)." In this stage, it seems that Baal was still used as an appellative, and its use had not been completely rejected.

Judging from the descriptions of Yahweh that resemble those of Baal, it seems that the conflictual relationship between the two deities was not always extensive. The texts concerning the conflicts between Yahweh and Baal are mainly from the monarchic period. In fact, there are indications that prior to the ninth century, the religion of Baal was not prominent in ancient Israel and the conflict between Yahweh and Baal was still minimal. (29) The opposition to the worship of Baal is first mentioned in the book of Judges, but there is no indication of a comprehensive cult of Baal. The references to Baal in the book of Judges are limited to formulas and not established religious elements, such as the priests of Baal and the temple of Baal. (30)

The Yahwistic hostility to Baal is most evident in the Elijah-Elisha Cycle (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 13:21). According to the text, Ahab and Jezebel's efforts to promote Baalism in Israel were vehemently opposed by Elijah. This battle between Elijah and Jezebel's prophets was portrayed as a conflict between two gods, Yahweh and Baal. This direct opposition between Yahweh and Baal resulted in a widespread movement to reject Baalism in ancient Israel. In fact, the rise of Baalism in the ninth and eight centuries, which despite prophetic and Deuteronomic criticism continued to be a major threat against the cult of Yahweh, became an influential factor to the vehement rejection to the name Baal in the later periods. (31)

As a result of the conflict, not only was the name Baal rejected, but any language associated with Baalism was also intentionally avoided. As noted by Cross, "It is not coincidental that the language of theophany and the imagery of revelation derived from the mythology of the storm god largely fell out of use, beginning in the ninth century, and including the two centuries to follow, in prophetic Yahwism." (32) Furthermore, names with the Baal theophoric element, which were accepted in earlier Israelite religious tradition, were later changed by Hebrew scribes. The later scribes substitute the word [phrase omitted] (shame) for Baal in personal names, such as Ishbosheth (2 Sam. 2:10) for Eshbaal (1 Chron. 8:33), Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 4:4) for Merib-baal (2 Chron. 8:34), and Jerubbesheth (2 Sam. 11:21) for Jerubbaal (Judg. 6:32).

Furthermore, the practice of describing Yahweh as Baal (lord) was also opposed, for example, by Hosea. He declares, "And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me 'My Husband ([phrase omitted]),' and no longer will you call me 'My Baal' ([phrase omitted])" (Hos. 2:16 ESV). It seems that, with the rise of Baalism in ancient Israel, the tendency to associate Baal with the specific deity grew stronger, and Baal lost its appellative sense over time as the result of this development. That said, when the prophetic movements rejected the use of Baal for Yahweh, it was certainly not a rejection of the title "lord." As Day contends, "Hosea was not simply objecting to the epithet 'Lord' (ba'al) being applied to Yahweh, but was countering a tendency of the people to conflate Yahweh and Baal to such an extent that the essential identity and uniqueness of the former was compromised." (33) In other words, at this point Baal was no longer conceptualized as a word that describes "lordship," but the name of a foreign god.

Summary of findings

From the discussion above, several things can be noted about the translatability of the divine names El and Baal in ancient Israel. First, the translation of these divine names did not primarily depend on the etymologies of the names. (34) This is evident from the fact that although both El and Baal were initially polysemous, only El was successfully assimilated into the Israelite religion. Second, the theology of El and Baal in the Canaanite religion was not the defining factor for determining the translatability of the two divine names. (35) Both El and Baal were deities in Canaanite religions, yet El was appropriated in the Yahwistic religion without polemics, and Baal was not. Third, ancient Israelites' conceptualization of El and Baal was the fundamental basis for the translatability of the divine names in ancient Israel. As noted in the discussion above, the use of a shared language by multiple religions does not necessarily indicate a shared theology. (36) El and Baal developed in opposite directions and were conceptualized differently by ancient Israelites compared to surrounding religions. The widespread worship of Baal in the ninth century in Israel contributed to the ancient Israelites' conceptualization of the word Baal as a reference to a specific deity as opposed to Yahweh. In a similar way, the decline of the worship of El led to the loss of its reference to the high god in the Canaanite religions while preserving the reference to the supreme being.

Translating "God" in Indonesia: Allah at a crossroads

Now that we have discussed the translatability of El and Baal in ancient Israel, we need to address the issue of the translatability of Allah in contemporary Indonesia. How do Indonesians, or specifically Christian Indonesians, understand the word Allah? The definitive dictionary of Indonesian language, Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, defines Allah as follows: "Nama Tuhan dalam bahasa Arab; pencipta alam semesta yang Mahasempurna; Tuhan Yang Maha Esa yang disembah oleh orang yang beriman" (The name of the Lord in Arabic; the most perfect creator of the universe, the only one Lord that is worshipped by people of faith). (37) According to this definition, the word Allah is used to refer to the supreme being worshipped by people of faith without a specific reference to the God in Islam or any specific religion. (38)

Despite its origin from Arabic, the word Allah has not been used by Indonesians in the same way as in Arabic. For instance, Daud Soesilo points out that the practice of attaching possessive pronouns to Allah may be offensive to some Muslim leaders who read Indonesian with an Arabic frame of mind. (39) They believe that the practice is wrong not only because it is grammatically incorrect to attach pronominal suffixes to the word Allah in Arabic, but also because of their strong feeling about the specific use of the word as a personal name of God in Islam. To attach pronominal suffixes to the word Allah in Arabic, the definite article in the word Allah should first be dropped. However, unlike in Arabic, in the Indonesian language it is grammatically correct to attach possessive pronouns to the term Allah without having to change the nominal form, that is, dropping the definite article as in Arabic. (40) Since the word Allah in Indonesian language is used as an indefinite generic noun, the practice of attaching possessive pronouns directly to the word Allah is not in violation of the Indonesian grammar rule. This phenomenon suggests that Allah as a loan word from Arabic "has been absorbed as a true Indonesian Lexical item... and follows the current Indonesian grammar rule." (41)

In other words, as in the case of El and Baal, where etymology and its uses in other faiths were not the basis for the translatability of divine names in ancient Israel, the attempt to define the meaning of Allah in Indonesia by tracing its etymology and historical usage in other religions is not only unnecessary but also incorrect. Moreover, like in ancient Israel, where the conceptualization of El and Baal by the ancient Israelites was the primary factor that determined their translatability, the legitimacy of the use of Allah for "God" is better understood according to the way it is used by its current language users, namely Indonesians, specifically Indonesian Christians.

The Indonesian Bible Society has maintained the legitimacy of the use of the name Allah by Christians. (42) Soesilo, the UBS Regional Translations Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Region, lists five reasons for continuing the use of Allah among Christians: (43) (1) Allah is equivalent to El, Elohim, and Eloah in the OT; (2) the Christian use of Allah is older than Islam; (3) Allah is used for God in all Arabic versions of the Bible; (4) Christians in countries where the languages are in contact with Arabic have used the word Allah as a generic term for God; and (5) the term Allah has been used in the Malay Bible translations for centuries. (44) Of the five reasons that Soesilo provides, the fifth is probably the strongest. I maintain that the long and sustained use of Allah by Indonesians, especially Indonesian Christians, over the centuries has changed the meaning of the word and makes it tenable for Indonesian Christians to use. Similarly, Thomas opines, "The use of Allah by Christians speaking Arabic and many other languages demonstrates its acceptance as a word to be used in their Bibles. Christians should not be encouraged to avoid the use of Allah where it has been traditionally used." (45)

It is vital to add that, although Indonesian Christians and Muslims use the same word Allah to refer to the supreme being, they do not necessarily share the same views about who Allah is. Indonesian Christians may have used Allah as a generic noun, whereas Indonesian Muslims may have used it as a personal name. In other words, the use of the same term for God does not necessarily imply shared belief. Consequently, Kenneth J. Thomas reminds the reader that it is not necessary to reject the use of Allah to maintain a radical distinction between Christian and Islamic concepts of the supreme being. He correctly argues, "Precedence indicates that each faith community has clearly defined its distinctive understanding of Allah through its contextual use, teaching and tradition." (46) This statement is true in contemporary Indonesia as well as in ancient Israel.

Furthermore, the use of the term Allah may have serious implications in the relationship between Islam and Christianity in Indonesia. It is worth pointing out that, unlike many countries, Indonesia is a relatively conducive country compared to other Muslim countries when it comes to the Muslim--Christian relationship. This is despite the fact that the Christian--Muslim relationship has suffered from mutual mistrust, which is partly the legacy of the Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. (47) Regrettably, the relationship between the two religions has worsened over the years due to various factors. As pointed out by Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, the tension between Islam and Christianity is caused by Muslims' fear of Christian evangelization and Christians' fear of Muslims' desire to institute Sharia law. (48) Furthermore, Islam in Indonesia is experiencing a turn toward intolerant conservatism in recent years. After enjoying a positive image of tolerant Islam in Indonesia, many have noticed the development of a more aggressive form of Islam. (49) All these factors contribute to a more radical polarization of Christianity and Islam in Indonesia.

Various efforts have been made to promote a harmonious relationship between Christianity and Islam in Indonesia. (50) Unfortunately, the call to reject the shared language of Allah may jeopardize the way of reconciliation between the two religions. In a relationship that has already suffered from many complications, a conflict over the name Allah would be an unnecessary addition to the problems. While it is essential to maintain the distinction between the concepts of God in Islam and Christianity, the tendency to overemphasize the differences between the two religions by rejecting the word Allah would hinder the dialogue between Muslims and Christians and, even worse, threaten the religious harmony and tolerance in Indonesia.

As exemplified by the recent experience concerning the use of the name Allah in Malaysia, the unnecessary polarization of Islam and Christianity over the use of Allah could lead to a violent reaction. (51) In the past few decades, Malaysia has seen multiple controversies around the use of the word Allah by Christian communities. In 2007, the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs prohibited the Herald, a monthly Christian magazine, from using Allah for God in their publication. In May 2008, this matter was taken to court for a judicial review, and the court ruled in favour of the Herald after a yearlong trial. In 2013, three Muslim judges in Malaysia's appeals court unanimously overturned the 2009 ruling by a lower court, and thus reinforced the prohibition of the use of Allah by Christians. Following the controversy around the use of the name Allah in Malaysia, a group of Christians sued the Indonesian Bible Society in 2008 for using the name Allah in their Bible translations. Although the Indonesian Bible Society was later vindicated, the polemic continues.

Until recently, violent conflicts between Muslims and Christians over the use of the word Allah have been almost non-existent in Indonesia. In other words, unlike in Malaysia, Indonesia has not reached the point where the issue of the use of Allah significantly affects the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Nevertheless, precautionary measures need to be taken. Learning from the peaceful appropriation of El as a generic name and the polemical appropriation of Baal as a personal name in ancient Israel, Indonesian Christians can prevent unnecessary provocation in the Christian--Muslim relationship by using the word Allah not like Baal but like El in ancient Israel. It is more urgent than ever to continue, and even promote, the use of Allah as a generic name to refer to the supreme being, which is the standard and correct conceptualization of Allah in the Indonesian language.

Critics of the use of Allah by Christians may point out that the use of this shared vocabulary poses the risk of confusion and misidentification of deities. This concern is valid. Nevertheless, as Andrew F. Walls so eloquently posits,
Politics is the art of the possible; translation is the art of the
impossible. Exact transmission of meaning from one linguistic medium to
another is continually hampered not only by structural and cultural
difference; the words of the receptor language are pre-loaded, and the
old cargo drags the new into areas uncharted in the source language. In
the end the translator has simply to do his best and take risks in a
high risk business. (52)

Risks are always present whether one chooses to use Allah or not. However, as noted above, the use of Allah by Christians in Indonesia presents a lower risk than not using it.

Moreover, the use of the word Allah could create a bridge for interreligious talks between Christians and Muslims. Arguing against Montgomery Watt, who suggests that the avoidance of the use of the word Allah in English would create a bridge for Islam and Christianity to talk about theology, F. S. Khair-Ullah asserts, "In Urdu we should not avoid the word Allah but use it for God so that a bridge is formed for a common understanding of God." (53) Khair-Ullah traces the reluctance of Western Christians against the use of the name Allah for God to the prejudice of the West against the East in general and Islam in particular. He maintains that genuine respect for the East is the first step to building the bridge of communication with Muslims.

The same is true for the use of Allah in Indonesia. The word Allah can function as a polysemy, which gives it the sense of ambiguity. I also concur with Khair-Ullah when he argues, "Ambiguity is not always undesirable; in fact, in poetry and religion it gives richness and depth. In religion it gives that something extra which is beyond our ken and which shows that there are more things in heaven and earth than our vocabulary can express." (54) In that sense, Allah, like El in ancient Israel, becomes "a figure of divine translatability" that opens theological dialogues among religions, especially between Islam and Christianity in contemporary Indonesia.


The translatability of divine names--whether it be El, Baal, or Allah--depends primarily on how the language users conceptualize the names. The shared language of divine names between two religions does not necessarily indicate shared concepts or perceptions, because new senses emerge when a word is used in new contexts. It is in this sense that Van der Spuy warns, "Critics from the West should be careful not to make a negative evaluation about the usage of the word Allah before they grasped the context and understanding of the local culture." (55) Therefore, not only is it legitimate for Indonesian Christians to continue to use the word Allah because of their conception of the word as a generic term for the supreme being, it is also imperative to maintain the function of the word Allah as such in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts between Islam and Christianity. By doing so, Allah can continue its function as a figure of divine translatability in contemporary Indonesia.

(1) For more information, see Daud H. Soesilo, "Allah in Malay and Indonesian Bible Translations," The Journal of Theologies and Cultures in Asia 5 (2006), 66-68.

(2) Ibid., 67.

(3) Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1938), 66; Kenneth J. Thomas, "Allah in Translations of the Bible," The Bible Translators! (2001), 301; Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Understanding the Differences Between Christianity and Islam (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 147.

(4) Thomas, "Allah in Translations," 301-302.

(5) Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 46.

(6) Belonging in the former group, Tennent asserts that the long and sustained use of Allah by Muslims has changed the meaning of the word and makes it untenable for Christians to use (ibid., 48). Also arguing in the same line is Montgomery Watt, "The Use of the Word 'Allah' in English," The Muslim World 43 (1953), 245-47. One of the most prominent of the latter group is Miroslav Volf: see .Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

(7) Otto Eissfeldt, "El and Yahweh," Journal of Semitic Studies 1 (1956), 25-37.

(8) For more discussion on the influence of the discovery at Ras Shamra on the understanding of the word "El" as both appellative and proper name, see Marvin H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1955), 1-8; compare with Otto Eissfeldt, El im ugaritischen Pantheon (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1951).

(9) Ulf Oldenburg argues, "The facts that the Ugaritic El has no other name and that the development of the Ugaritic pantheon is centrifugal rather than centripetal (it constantly adopted other gods whose importance increased, whereas that of El decreased) favor [the view that El was originally a proper name]" (The Conflict between El and Ba'al in Canaanite Religion [Leiden: Brill, 1969], 164).

(10) Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 13.

(11) For more discussion on the parallels between the Ugaritic El and the biblical El/Yahweh, see ibid., 182-83; John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 17-24; Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 35-43; compare with Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts, 25-49.

(12) Cross, Canaanite Myth, 13.

(13) Smith, Early History of God, 34, 41.

(14) Terrance Randall Wardlaw, Conceptualizing Words for "God" within the Pentateuch: A Cognitive-Semantic Investigation in Literary Context (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 124.

(15) J. Gordon McConville, "Yahweh and the Gods in the Old Testament," European Journal of Theology 2 (1993), 114.

(16) Rolf Rendtorff, "'El als israelitische Gottesbezeichnung: Mit einem Appendix: Beobachtungen zum Gebrauch von [phrase omitted]," Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 106 (1994), 6.

(17) Ibid., 7. Rendtorff lists several examples of the use of El that do not refer to Yahweh: [phrase omitted] (Ex. 34:14), [phrase omitted] (Ps. 44:21; 81:10), and [phrase omitted] (Deut. 32:12; Mal. 2:11; Ps. 81:10) ("'El als israelitische Gottesbezeichnung," 11).

(18) Ibid., 8. Here, Rendtorff examines the El-plus-adjective constructions such as such as [phrase omitted] (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; 5:9;

6:15; Josh. 24:19; Nah. 1:2), [phrase omitted] (Ex. 34:6; Neh. 9), [phrase omitted] (Neh. 9:32), [phrase omitted] (Deut. 7:9), [phrase omitted] (Josh. 3:10; Hos. 2:1; Ps. 42:3, 84:3), and other epithets (Deut. 7:21; Dan 9:4; Neh. l:5; Jer. 32:18).

(19) Ibid., 11.

(20) John Van Seters, "The Religion of the Patriarchs in Genesis," Biblica 61 (1980), 230.

(21) Ziony Zevit believes "['El names] cannot be assigned to either the Yahwistic or to non-Yahwistic category on any objective grounds. Almost all known theophoric Ammonite names are formed with the 'l element and in these 'l certainly did not refer to YHWH. Accordingly, the specific deity intended by parents who gave their child an 'l name is known only to them." (The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches [New York: Continuum, 2000], 587).

(22) For more discussion on the history, text, and commentary of the Deir Alla inscription, see Jo Ann Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir Alla (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984).

(23) Joel S. Burnett, "Prophecy in Transjordan: Balaam Son of Beor," in Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context, ed. Christopher A. Rollston (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), 157.

(24) See Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 129-30.

(25) Giovanni Pettinato, "Pre-Ugaritic Documentation of Ba'al," in The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon, ed. Gary Rendsburg et al. (New York: Ktav and The Institute of Hebrew Culture and Education of New York University, 1980), 205-206.

(26) Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 68; The biblical Baal is identified by scholars with either Melqart or Baal Shamem. William F. Albright, for example, favours the former (Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969], 243-44), and Smith favours the latter (Early History of God, 68-71).

(27) For a detailed comparison between Psalm 29 and the hymn to Baal, see Cross, Canaanite Myth, 151-56.

(28) Ibid, 169.

(29) Smith, Early History of God, 75.

(30) Herve Tremblay, "Yahve contre Baal? Ou plutot Yahve a la place de Baal? Jalons pour la naissance d'un monotheisme. II. Le conflit entre Canaan/Baal et Israel/Yahve selon les textes," Science et Esprit 61 (2009), 62.

(31) Smith, Early History of God, 75. Stig Norin, based on his analysis of Baal theophoric names from before the first millennium to the monarchic period, believes that the worship of Baal was never prominent in Israel (Personennamen mid Religion im alten Israel, untersucht mit besonderer Berucksichtigung der Namen auf El und Ba'al [ Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013], 267). However, the lack of onomastica does not always reflect religious devotion since prominent deities like Asherah do not appear in Ugaritic theophoric names.

(32) Cross, Canaanite Myth, 191.

(33) Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 73.

(34) Contra McConville, who claims that "the term El, both in Israel and in Canaan, is simply the primary word for 'god'--both as a generic and also as a way of speaking of the supreme (or in Israel's case, only) God--the precise meaning, in each case, being determined by a wide context of religious ideas. The word Ba'al did not have this broad range, and was therefore more resistant to assimilation" (Yahweh and the Gods, 115). The assertion that the term Baal's range of meaning did not include a generic sense is not true, since Baal, like El, had both appellative and personal senses, as shown by its usages in the OT.

(35) Contra Day, who argues that El was successfully assimilated into the Yahwistic faith because El possesses better attributes than Baal. He writes, "This must reflect a favourable judgment on El's characteristic attributes: as supreme deity, creator god and one possessed of wisdom, El was deemed wholly fit to be equated with Yahweh. Baal, on the other hand, was not only subordinate to the chief god El, but was also considered to be dead in the underworld for half the year, something hardly compatible with Yahweh, who 'will neither slumber nor sleep' (Ps. 121.4)" (Yahweh and the Gods, 14-15). Nevertheless, this cannot be true, since El is also depicted in the Ugaritic mythology as drunk and sexually immoral.

(36) Rendtorff warned against the tendency in the study of Israelite religion to assume that the OT adopts the belief system of the Canaanite religion based on the use of a shared language, especially divine names ("El, Ba'al und Jahwe: Erwagungen zum Verhaltnis von kanaanaischer und israelitischer Religion," Zeitschrift fur die alttestament-liche Wissenschaft 78 [1966], 277-92). He complained that the heavy emphasis on the similarities between the use of divine name and the lack of treatment of the differences between Ugaritic texts and the OT had hindered our understanding of how the names were understood in the Israelite religion.

(37) Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, "Allah," n.d., It is worth noting that the Indonesian language originated from the Malay language, which was a lingua franca of the East Indies, the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, etc. In the 20th century, the Malay language developed into two distinct but closely related languages, that is, Bahasa Melayu (Malaysian language) and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language).

(38) Roelie van der Spuy makes a similar observation about the use of Allah as a term for God by the Talysh speakers of Azerbaijan. In his survey, he finds the following results. "Not a single respondent indicated that this word reminded them in any way that this is a term used only by Muslims to address their God. The questions regarding Allah were answered in a totally neutral manner, just indicating that this term for God indicates that God is the Creator or the High God, the Almighty. In the indirect verifying questions, again referring to the word Allah amongst other words for God, once again a unanimous response indicated that there is absolutely no negative or Muslim connotation to the usage of this term for God amongst the Talysh speakers in Azerbaijan" ("The Understanding and the Use of the Term Allah as a Term for God in Translations of the Bible and the Qur'an with Specific Reference to the Talysh Speakers of Azerbaijan," In die Skriflig 49 [2015], 3). He then concludes that, unlike in the West, the word Allah has no negative connotations and is used in a neutral way in the Talysh area.

(39) Soesilo, "Allah in Malay and Indonesian Bible Translations," 76.

(40) Daud H. Soesilo, "Translating the Names of God: Recent Experience from Indonesia and Malaysia," The Bible Translators 52 (2001), 418.

(41) Soesilo, "Allah in Malay and Indonesian Bible Translations," 76.

(42) Anwar Tjen, "Meluruskan Fakta Yang Dipelintir Tentang Terjemahan LAI," n.d,

(43) Soesilo, "Translating the Names of God," 416.

(44) The use of Allah to translate the word [phrase omitted] ("God") was first introduced in the Malay language by A. C. Ruyl in 1629, followed by D. Brouwerius in 1662, M. Leijdecker in 1733, H. C. Klinkert in 1879, and W. A. Bode in 1938. This practice was later continued in the Indonesian translation of the Bible, since the Indonesian language developed from the Malay language. For a detailed history of Bible translation in Indonesia, see Soesilo, "Allah in Malay and Indonesian Bible Translations," 62-66.

(45) Thomas, "Allah in Translations," 306; compare with Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, 48.

(46) Thomas, "Allah in Translations," 305.

(47) The positive image of tolerant Islam in Indonesia is illustrated, for example, by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Following his discussion of the tension between the majority Muslims and the minority non-Muslims in various countries, he comments, "Nowhere in the Muslim world (except perhaps in Indonesia?) do Muslims feel that a non-Muslim member of their nation is 'one of us."' Islam in Modern History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 80.

(48) Alwi Shihab, "The Muhammadiyah Movement and Its Controversy with Christian Mission in Indonesia" (Ph.D. disseration: Temple University, 1995), 332-35.

(49) Dicky Sofjan lists some indicators of Indonesia's turn toward intolerant conservatism: increasing use of violence in the name of religion, rising incidences of interreligious conflicts, professed sympathies for extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida, the implementation of religion-inspired bylaws, and the incursion of radical transnational Islamic movements ("Religious Diversity and Politico-Religious Intolerance in Indonesia and Malaysia," The Review of Faith & International Affairs 14 [2016], 56).

(50) For a more detailed discussion on the Christian--Muslim relationship in Indonesia, its challenges, and the efforts to promote a harmonious relationship between the two faiths, see B. J. Boland, The Struggle of Islam in Modern Indonesia (The Hague: Martmus Nijhoff, 1982), 224-42; Karel A. Steenbrink, Dutch Colonialism and Indonesian Islam: Contacts and Conflicts, 1596-1950 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 124-54.

(51) Sophie Brown, "Malaysia to Christians: Don't Say 'Allah,'", 2014,

(52) Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 26.

(53) F. S. Khair-Ullah, "Linguistic Hang-Ups in Communicating with Muslims," Practical Anthropology 4 (1976), 307; contra Montgomery Watt, "The Use of the Word Allah' in English," The Muslim World 43 (1953), 247.

(54) Khair-Ullah, "Linguistic Hang-Ups in Communicating with Muslims," 308.

(55) Van der Spuy, "The Understanding and the Use of the Term Allah," 6.

Chelcent Fuad is a PhD student at Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky, USA.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Advanced Research Programs Interdisciplinary Colloquium at Asbury Theological Seminary on 12 October 2018.

DOI: 10.1111/irom.12271

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Author:Fuad, Chelcent
Publication:International Review of Mission
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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