The god Gad




The cult of the god Gad in ancient Israel-Judah is obscure. As a god identified with good fortune (gad is a common noun meaning “fortune, luck”), the divine name is attested sporadically in the Bible as well as in personal names and inscriptions from the larger Syro-Palestinian region. The laconic quality of personal names provides few hints about his character and identity, while the single literary text in which the divine name occurs is highly polemical and of limited use (Isa 65:11). Further complicating matters is that not only was there a god in the southern Levant known as Gad, but the noun gad was also commonly used in personal names in its appellative sense to identify a particular god as a source of good fortune. During the first millennium it seems a multitude of gods were described as a source of gad, as reflected in the personal names gdmlqrt (“Melqart is fortune”), gdʿštrt (“Astarte is fortune”), gdnbw (“Nabu is fortune”), gdyhw (“Yahu is my fortune”), gdyʾl (“El is my fortune”), mlkmgd (“Milkom is fortune”), ṣlmgd (“Ṣlm is fortune”). Eventually the concept gad was generalized and came to be used as a title for patron deities of cities, tribes, and localities in the Graeco-Roman Near East (Höfner 1965: 438-39; Lipiński 1995: 62-64; Kaizer 1997; Ribichini 1999: 340).


So who was the god Gad? Why was he worshipped among so many cultures? And what was his relationship to other better known national gods? Unfortunately, there has been rather limited investigation into the origin and nature of the deity. Although the existence of a god named Gad has long been recognized (e.g. Skinner 1910: 387-388; Noth 1966: 126-127; Ahlström 1983: 47-48), the general tendency of biblical scholarship has been to treat him as an abstract figure exclusively associated with the concept of fortune and thus essentially a lesser divinity in the West Semitic pantheon. For example, J. Tigay classified Gad among “semi-divine beings or spirits instead of full-fledged deities…. Like tyche, gad was sometimes personified and worshipped as the genius or fortune of an individual, a tribe, a city, a garden, or a well” (1987: 163-167), and S. Ribichini similarly states, “Gad is the name of a deity of good luck, equivalent to the Greek Tyche and Latin Fortuna” (1999: 339). Furthermore, in connection with the assumption that Gad arose as a personification, the worship of this deity has often been regarded as a specifically late religio-historical phenomenon, corresponding to its occurrence in Isa 65 and attestation in Aramaic, Nabataean, Palmyrenian, and Safaitic personal names from the 5th century and later (Schunck 1975: 383-84; Maier 1992: 863-64; Naʿaman 1999: 144).


However, the assumption that Gad was a personification comparable to Greek tyche or a late development in West Semitic religion is not borne out by a closer examination of the evidence. We have clear attestation of Gad used as a self-standing theophoric in West Semitic proper names from the Late Bronze into the late first millennium:


  1. ndrgd “Gad promised” in Ugaritic (Gröndahl 1967: 126); cf. ʾelnadar “El promised” in the Murashu archive (Coogan 1976: 13), ndrbwl/ndrbl “Bel promised” from Palmyra (Lidzbarski 1898: 322), and nḏrʾl “El promised” in Safaitic (Harding 1971: 585).
  2. az-gu-di/az-qu-du “Gad is protection” in West Semitic preserved in Neo-Assyrian (Fales 1979: 68); cf. ʿzbʿl “Baal is protection” in Aramaic (Deutsch and Lemaire 2000: 105) and ʿzʾl “El is protection” in Ammonite (Avigad and Sass 1997: 961).  
  3. gdrm “Gad is exalted” and gdql “Gad has spoken” in Aramaic (Maraqten 1988: 75); cf. ʾlrm “El is exalted” in Hebrew (Albertz 2012: 571) and Ammonite (Avigad and Sass 1997: 864) and bʿlrm “Baal is exalted” in Phoenician (Benz 1972: 98); qlyhw “YHW has spoken” (Albertz 2012: 586) in Hebrew and bʿlrgm “Baal has spoken” (Maraqten 1988: 73) in Aramaic.
  4. ʾbrgd “Gad is strong/my strength” (Avigad 1966: 243-44), gdytn “Gad has given” (Benz 1972: 102), and gdnʿm “Gad is kind” (idem.: 102) in Phoenician; cf. ʾbrbʿl “Baal is strong” in Phoenician (Benz 1972: 55) and ʾbryhw “YHW is strong” in Hebrew (Albertz 2012: 557); ytnbʿl “Baal gave” in Phoenician (Benz 1972: 129) and yhwntn “YHW gave” in Hebrew (Albertz 2012: 593); nʿmʾl “El is kind” in Phoenician (Benz 1972: 147) and Hebrew (Albertz 2012: 573).
  5. ʿzgd “Gad is protection” (Ezra 2:12; 8:12; Neh 7:17; 10:16) and mgdlgd “Tower of Gad” (Josh 15:37) in Hebrew. ʾšr “happiness,” a near synonym of gd, also occurs as a theophoric in ʾšrḥy “Asher lives” and ʾšryḥt “?” in Hebrew (Avigad and Sass: 1997: 486) and ʾšršlḥ “Asher has set free” in Phoenician (Benz 1972: 73). Cf. the theophoric elementʾšr in Amorite personal names (Huffmon 1965: 172-173).
  6. gdmlk “Gad is king” in Moabite (Mitchell 1994: 191-200); cf. ʾlmlk “El is king” in Ammonite (Deutsch and Lemaire 2000: 163).
  7. gdʿzr “Gad has helped” in Ammonite (Aufrecht 1989: no. 147:4:1); cf. ʾlʿzr “El has helped” in Hebrew (Albertz 2012: 546),  bʿlʿzr “Baal has helped” in Phoenician (Benz 1972: 96), and hddʿzr “Hadad has helped” in Aramaic (Avigad and Sass 1997: 785).


In none of the above personal names is it plausible to interpret gad or ʾšr in its generic appellative sense. In line with West Semitic theophoric personal names more generally, gad is appended to a predicative element in the form of an adjective or verb, implying that it functions as the personal subject of the simple clauses.


Furthermore, the god Gad is treated as a distinct mythological figure with powers to intervene in the lives of individuals virtually indistinguishable from regular high gods. Gad is said to have made good on a vow, to have provided protection, to be exalted and strong, to have bestowed a child, to be king, etc., statements that elsewhere in the West Semitic onomasticon are regularly used to describe deities such as El, Baal, or YHWH. In addition, Gad is consistently implied to have been a male based on the use of masculine verbs and adjectives in the associated predicative elements. The evidence of personal names shows that Gad was conceptualized as a male divinity throughout his millennia long career and it is only in the Hellenistic period when we find gad used as an epithet for female deities in the Punic world and in Graeco-Roman Syria, likely a result of Greek influence that conceived the patron goddess of a city/kingdom as tyche (cf. Barré 1983: 64-73; Lipiński 1995: 62-64).


The traditional interpretation of Gad as a personification of “fortune” has relied to a great extent on Isa 65 as well as later Graeco-Roman sources that equate gad with tyche (e.g. Blenkinsopp 2003: 278-79). But Isa 65 is a problematic source for elucidating the earlier West Semitic understanding of Gad. The consensus of modern scholarship is that chap 65 belongs to the latest strata of the book and the reference to Gad is found in a polemical accusation that members of the Jerusalem community have abandoned YHWH to worship Gad and Meni, the god and goddess of fortune and fate. The language is highly rhetorical, as suggested by the dense use of wordplay and metaphor in the surrounding literary context. In this case, the prophetic author is not describing Gad and Meni as they would have been understood by actual worshippers of these deities, but is using them as a foil for YHWH in order to dramatize and exaggerate the impiety of his adversaries (cf. Hanson 1979: 198; Koenen 1990: 180; Rom-Shiloni 2013: 127-134). Further, the Graeco-Roman understanding of gad as a generic appellative equivalent to tyche is clearly a late historical development. As I mentioned above, in earlier West Semitic sources Gad is used as the proper name of a specific male deity.


Because the god Gad is only sporadically attested in personal names before the 5-4th century and yet appears with the same kinds of predicates as major high gods, it seems unavoidable that the name functioned as an epithet and referred to a deity commonly known by another name. The widespread attestation of theophoric personal names that link a major high god to gad in the predicative element noted above shows that the concept of good fortune and fate was not unrelated to these deities’ mythological profiles and in fact was integral to their role in personal religion (deity X is “good fortune”). If a god could be tied to gad in an appellative sense, it is not so strange to think that a god could be referred to as (the) Gad or the (the) Fortune in itself. Otherwise we would have to conclude that Gad was a god who was believed to intervene favorably in the lives of individuals and had the powers of other major deities but was only occasionally called upon or credited with having served as a personal god. We have many examples in the ancient Near East where a deity was known by multiple epithets (e.g. El = Baal, Shaddai, and Elyon), and neither is the use of a common noun as though it were a proper name exceptional in the wider context of West Semitic divine names (e.g. ʾb “father”=Father; ʾl “god”=El; bʿl “lord”=Baal; mwt “death”=Death; šm “name”=Name).


Assuming that Gad is an epithet of another common West Semitic divinity, one candidate looms before all others as the preeminent source of fortune in the West Semitic sphere, namely, the god El. From Ugarit to Israel-Judah to Arabia, El seems to have had a particularly close relationship to gad as the determiner of fate and fortune. First, I have already noted that the god El is associated with gad as an appellative. This includes the name ilgdn from Ugarit, the predicative element of which has generally been derived from gad (cf. Gröndahl 1967: 126; Fales 1979: 68; Ribichini and Xella 1991: 160); Hebrew gdyʾl “El is my fortune” (Num 13:10); West Semitic ga-di-ilu “El is my fortune” preserved in Neo-Assyrian (Tallqvist 1914: 255); and gdʾl “El is fortune” in North Arabian (Harding 1971: 154).


Second, most of the names that occur with the theophoric element Gad have close analogues in El names with the same predicate in West Semitic. For example, ndrgd “Gad promised” in Ugaritic corresponds to Elnadar “El promised” in West Semitic and nḏrʾl “El promised” in Safaitic; gdrm “Gad is exalted” in Aramaic to ʾlrm “El is exalted” in Hebrew; gdnʿm “Gad is kind” in Phoenician to nʿmʾl “El is kind” in Phoenician; ʿzgd “Gad is protection” in Hebrew to ʿzʾl “El is protection” in Ammonite and Aramaic; gdmlk “Gad is king” in Moabite to ʾlmlk “El is king” in Ammonite; and gdʿzr “Gad has helped” in Ammonite to ʾlʿzr “El has helped” in Hebrew. In other words, the same kinds of statements made in devotion to Gad are also made in reference to El. The overlap between Gad and El is particularly apparent in the Arabian sphere, where we find names such as gddʾl “El has determined” (Harding 1971: 154) and gdšfq “Gad had compassion” (idem: 155) and the corresponding gdnʿm/nʿmgd “Gad is kind” (idem: 156, 594) and ʾlnʿm/nʿmʾl “El is kind” (idem: 71, 594); gdyfʿ “Gad has shone forth” (idem: 154) and ʾlyfʿ/ yfʿʾl “El has shone forth” (idem: 73, 679); and slmgd “Gad has made whole” (idem: 154) and slmʾl “El has made whole” (idem: 325).


Third, in Israel-Judah we have more specific support for equating Gad and El. The place name Baal Gad can mean either “Baal is good fortune” (Naʿaman 1999: 144), “Baal of fortune” (cf. Baal Hamon “lord of abundance”), or “Gad is lord” (Noth 1966: 126, n. 3). In any case, the Baal referenced is likely to have been El, since his cult site is located in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon (Josh 11:17; 12:17; 13:5). R. Steiner has presented biblical and inscriptional data that the “Baal” of this vicinity was in fact Canaanite El (2009: 511-12). In addition, a town in Judah is named mgdl-gd “Fortress of Gad” and in Naphtali there is a mgdl-ʾl “Fortress of El,” implying a functional identity between Gad and El. In the Hebrew Bible the mgdl of Shechem is associated with another El deity, El-berit, also called Baal-berit (Jgs 8:33; 9:46-47).


Fourth, in Gen 30:9-13 Gad and Asher seem to be used as divine epithets for the personal god of the narrative (cf. Burney 1920: 197-198; Westermann 1995: 475; Frevel 1995: 162). Leah’s maid Zilpah bears a son and then she exclaims bgd “By [the help of] Fortune!” A second son is born and she exclaims again bʾšry “by [the help of] my Luck.” Throughout most of the birth narrative of the tribal ancestors YHWH is called Elohim (30:2, 6, 18, 20, 22), or in other words, El.


As I mentioned earlier, the theophoric element Asher is attested in Hebrew and Phoenician personal names, including ʾšrḥy “Asher lives,” ʾšryḥt “?,” and ʾšršlḥ “Asher has set free.” In the past Asher has often been explained in relation to Asherah, either as a defective writing of the name or as a male counterpart to the goddess (Skinner 1910: 388; Burney 1920: 197-198; Noth 1966: 131; Avigad and Sass 1997: 486; Römer 2015: 278, n. 15). More recently, B. Sass has proposed that Asher stems from the root ʾšr meaning “place” and designates the “divinized temple” (2014). However, a basic problem with the above proposals is that etymologically Asher does not seem to be related to the root common to the name Asherah or ʾšr “place.” In Middle Kingdom Egyptian writting of the NWS name element ʾšr the sibilant is written with a š and not an s, which militates against the view that it is derived from PS ʾṯr (Albright 1954: 229-230, n. 51; Janzen 1965: 216). Further, in Ugaritic the form išryt “happiness” is distinguished from aṯrt “Asherah, suggesting that Asher stems from PS ʾsr (Frevel 1995: 162, n. 447). On analogy with the name Gad, it seems reasonable to conclude therefore that the tribal name and theophoric element Asher is related to ʾšr “happiness, felicity” and was a fairly widespread epithet of the personal god. The nominal element ʾšr “happiness” may also function as the predicate in the unexplained Hebrew names אשראל ,אשראלה ,אשריאל, meaning “My happiness is El” (cf. HALOT; Noth 1966: 183; Zadok 1988: 29; Fowler 1988: 337; Sass 2014: 56, n. 59).


Lastly, an altar from Nabataean Hauran was found in the 19th century that included a dedicatory inscription by individuals who refer to themselves as rḥmy gdʾ “friends of the Gad” (Littmann 1904: 93-94). Significantly, gad here is simply “the gad,” not the gad of so and so. His identity is thus obvious enough for the dedicators that no further specification was necessary. Several clues allow us to identify this gad:


1) The phrase “friends of Gad” is evocative of the kinds of terms of endearment that were characteristic and distinctive to West Semitic El as personal god (cf. van der Toorn 1996: 101). At Ugarit various divine “beloveds” of El are known (Rahmouni 2008: 193-197, 212-218), and El appears as a theophoric in the Akkadian Ugaritic personal name il tappa “El is friend” (Gröndahl 1967: 201). Closer in time and space are the personal names ḥbbʾl “beloved of El,” wddʾl “beloved of El,” and šʿʾl “companion of El” in Thamudic and Safaitic inscriptions (Harding 1971: 172, 364, 637), or even the later Islamic concept of Wali Allah “beloved of Allah.” In the Bible several figures bear the name rʿʾl, “companion of El”, including Moses’ father-in-law (Ex 2:18); the name šlmyʾl means “My ally is El” (Levine 1993: 136), ʾldd perhaps “El has loved” (cf. Noth 1966: 183; Zadok 1988: 49). In James 2:23 Abraham is called philos theou, “the friend of God.”


2) On each side of the altar sculpted bull images are displayed prominently. Known for its virility and strength, the bull was a long enduring and widely distributed symbol of Canaanite El (e.g. van der Toorn 1996: 321-22; Smith 2001: 32, 146-147).


3) The personal names contained in the inscription lend support to seeing an identity between El and “the Gad.” One of the “friends” is named ṣʿdʾl “El helps.” He is the son of wtrw, which, interestingly, is cognate to the name of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro. In addition, the name of the sculptor is ḥnʾl “El was gracious” (Littmann 1904: 94).


The god Gad thus appears not to have been an independent West Semitic deity, but merely an epithet of El, the personal god par excellence in the southern Levant. Based on the occurrence of the epithet at Ugarit and its widespread usage in Canaanite and Arabian cultures, its application to El probably occurred quite early in the development of West Semitic religion and was integral to his conceptual profile. As the ancestral god of the Canaanite peoples, it makes sense that El would have been closely linked to the concepts of fortune and fate. In the ancient Near East the gods were believed to be responsible for the maintenance of the cosmos and the wellbeing of the individual and family, and in the southern Levant this role fell particularly to the gods El and Asherah. At Ugarit, El is the highest authority and source of blessing; El is said to have the power to determine “a life of good fortune” (1.3 V 30-31; 1.4 IV 41-43; cf. Smith 2009: 353; Kogan 2015: 326-27). In Amherst Papyrus 63 Bethel is a creator and father god and so has power over the destinies of his people; he provides fertility, food, and protection (Steiner 2003). At Byblos King Yehawmilk prays that the Lady of Byblos, a Phoenician form of Asherah, may “bless [him], and may she keep him alive, and prolong his days and years over Byblos… and give him favor in the eyes of the gods and in the eyes of the people” (KAI 10: 8-10).


As is well known, comparable roles are ascribed to YHWH-El in the Bible. A poem in 1 Sam 2:3-8 preserves an early text that can be assumed to reflect more popular beliefs about El as a god of fortune and fate:


A god of knowledge is YHWH, a god who balances his actions;

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength;

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry cease forever;

The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is bereaved;

YHWH causes to die and brings to life, he brings down to Sheol and raises up;

YHWH makes poor and makes rich, he makes low, he also exalts;

He raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap,

To make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.


Because El and Asherah were the primary head of the Israelite-Judahite pantheon, we can assume that they would have had a preeminent role with regard to general prosperity and wellbeing, as well as the cyclic processes of life. This de facto made them the locus of fate and fortune for both communities and individuals (cf. the description of the “Queen of Heaven” in Jer 44:17-18). Just as many religious people today relate their good or bad fortune to a transcendent high god who governs over the affairs of humankind, so did people in ancient Palestine see El and Asherah as particularly implicated in the vicissitudes and precariousness of life.


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