The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Genesis 49 and the “Prayer of Jacob”

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Genesis 49 and the “Prayer of Jacob”

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“Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.” (Genesis 49:1)

In their vain attempts to attack the character of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), many Christian apologists appeal to the so-called “Satanic Verses” story mentioned in some early Islamic sources, such as the Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq, even though it is only narrated through mursal ahadith and is not generally considered reliable. But could the Bible have its own “Satanic Verses” while faithful are none the wiser? Are Christians looking at the wrong book to try and find satanic ideas? In this article, we will see evidence for the nefarious influence of pagan mythology on the Bible. The example we will examine is the so-called “prayer of Jacob” in Genesis 49.

Jacob’s Prayer and Canaanite Paganism

            In Genesis 49, the patriarch Jacob, who is known in Arabic as Yaqub (peace be upon him) and is a prophet in Islam, prays for all of his sons, including, of course, Joseph (Yusuf in Islam). The passage of interest is Genesis 49:24–26, where Jacob prays for his most beloved son Joseph (emphasis ours):

“…yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.”[1]

The epithet “Might One”, presumably used for YHWH, and the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” are what interests us here.

Let’s start with the epithet “the Mighty One” (also translated as “the Strong One”). The Hebrew word “‘abiyr” is the word of interest. Scholars observe that the consonants in Hebrew are the same as in the word “bull”. John L. McLaughlin states in his book The Ancient Near East: An Essential Guide (emphasis in the original):

“…the Hebrew word translated as ‘Might One’ contains the exact consonants as the word for ‘bull’. ‘The Bull’ was another title for El in the Ugarit texts, and since early Hebrew wrote only the consonants, either ‘mighty one’ or ‘bull’ is a possible translation since they look the same without the vowels. However, the cluster of El titles in the next verse supports taking it as bull: Gen 49:25 speaks of ‘blessings by El, your father’ (not ‘God of your father’; see ‘the blessings of your father,’ v. 26) and by Shaddai.”[2]

So, the correct reading of “abiyr” is “bull”, and hence, the verse should read “the Bull of Jacob”. The reason is that there are other epithets (e.g., “Shadday”) that all just happened to be used for the Canaanite sky-god “El”.[3] So, it’s not a coincidence. The so-called “prayer of Jacob” uses numerous titles for YHWH that the Canaanites used for El. They are just assumed by Bible readers as referring to YHWH. Professor Mark S. Smith notes this as well in his book The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel:

“…‘El, your father, who saves you,’ and…‘Shadday who blesses you’…‘Heaven above,’ and…‘Deep crouching below’; and ‘Breasts-and-Womb,’ and…‘your Father, Hero and Almighty.’ Most of these epithets, including ‘Father’ and ‘Shadday,’ are attributed elsewhere to Yahweh-El.”[4]

However, it gets even more interesting! Genesis 49:25 has the phrase “blessings of the breast and of the womb”. The Hebrew for “breast and womb” is “sadayim waraham”. Is it just a coincidence that in a prayer that uses epithets of a Canaanite skygod, there is also a reference to Canaanite goddesses too? As Smith explains, “sadayim waraham” is associated in Canaanite myth with the goddesses Asherah and Anat! Smith writes:

“[t]he phrase…in verse 25e echoes Ugaritic titles of the goddesses Asherah and Anat. The word rhm is associated with the goddess Anat in KTU [Keilschrift Texte aus Ugarit] 1.6 II 27, 1.15 II 6, and 1.23.16. In KTU 1.23.13 and 28, this title refers to Anat in her pairing with Asherah. In an invocation in KTU 1.23.23-24, the ‘beautiful gods’…are characterized as receiving nourishment from Asherah and Anat…”

Smith continues:

“[t]hese terms meaning ‘breasts and womb’ could be interpreted in purely natural terms, as signs of natural fertility. This interpretation represents the traditional view of the terms and is reflected in most modern translations (e.g., RSV, NAB, New Jewish Publication Society). […] The pairing with El, however, favors the interpretation…as the epithets of Asherah. If this interpretation of Genesis 49:24-26 is correct, then El and Asherah were Israelite deities distinguished from Yahweh, who is invoked separately in verse 18. This chapter might then represent a tradition or early stage in Israel’s religious history in which El and Yahweh were not identified and Asherah stood as an identifiable goddess.”[5]

So, the word “rhm” (womb) in the Ugaritic texts was associated with both Anat and Asherah, just like “bull” and “Shadday” were associated with El. Any of these linguistic associations by themselves would not be of much interest or controversy (i.e., “breast and womb” could just refer to natural fertility), but when they appear together with known epithets Canaanite gods and goddesses in the same poem, it is not mere coincidence. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret the choice of words in light of the similar language in the Ugaritic texts. Paired with the epithets for El, “breasts and womb” in Genesis 49 appear to be a reference to the pagan goddesses Anat and Asherah, the latter of which happened to be El’s “wife” in the Canaanite myth, as Smith explains:

“[t]he strongest evidence…supports Asherah as the goddess evoked by the female epithets in Genesis 49:25. The Ugaritic background of the epithets favors Asherah. Furthermore, the pairing of [breasts and womb] with El would further point to Asherah, since Asherah is the goddess paired with him in the Ugaritic texts.”[6]

Incidentally, we have evidence from an ancient inscription in which YHWH is seemingly paired with Asherah (see Figure 1)! The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscription, dated to c. 800 BCE, says the following:

“X says: Say to Y and Yau’asah and [to Z]: I bless you by Yahweh, of Samaria, and by his/its Asherah.”[7]

Figure 1: The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscription (Source: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/image-gallery/y/yahweh-asherah-drawing)

            So, for some reason, the male epithets of El (and also Baal) became associated with Yahweh and the female epithets for Anat and Asherah were also incorporated in Genesis 49 (the male epithets/imagery are found elsewhere in the Bible as well). Smith cites such verses as Deuteronomy 33:26–27 and Psalm 18:14–16.[8]  This raises some troubling questions: what are these pagan epithets doing in a prayer of a supposed monotheist like Jacob (peace be upon him)? Are they simply the result of one culture appropriating and reusing an earlier culture’s language and symbolism (and thus, it’s not a big deal)?

We should keep in mind that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses (peace be upon him) but was the result of a centuries-long process of editing and fusing multiple source materials. Jacob (peace be upon him) would have lived more than 1000 years before Genesis received its final form around the 5th/6th century BCE. There is certainly overwhelming evidence that some aspects of Canaanite paganism found their way into the Bible (not just in Genesis). Could it just be appropriation? Is it not that big of a deal? Well, yes and no.

Let’s assume that “God” dictated the book of Genesis to Moses (peace be upon him), as fundamentalists would have us believe. Why would God have used pagan language or have taught Jacob to use such language? Imagine if there was an epithet like “sky father” in the Bible for the God of Abraham! Would that be an appropriate epithet for God, who is not a primitive “sky god” who literally “lives” in the sky, but who rather transcends time and space and is above creation? Of course not! The term “sky father” is the literal translation of the word “Jupiter”, the name of the Roman sky god, later associated with Zeus (derived from the Latin dieu- [bright sky] and pater [father]).[9] It is not an appropriate title for the One, True God. The same can be said of pagan epithets like “bull” and “breasts and womb”. Since the link with Canaanite paganism (via the Ugaritic texts) is undeniable, these terms are inappropriate and out of place in the prayer of a monotheist like Jacob (peace be upon him).[10]

However, we can be certain that God did not “dictate” the Pentateuch to Moses (peace be upon him). There is firm evidence that Genesis was cobbled together from different (human) source materials. So, the Canaanite symbolism was appropriated by the authors, though Muslims would argue that this appropriation was not authorized by God (Christians and Jews may deny any appropriation took place). Also, this appropriation is certainly a big deal. While there are clear Biblical condemnations of the worship of pagan deities such as Asherah (Micah 5:14) and Baal (Judges 3:7),[11] it is ironic that references to these pagan deities still found their way into the Bible in several places (e.g., Genesis 49:25; Daniel 7:13).[12]

Conclusion

            Genesis 49 contains problematic and troubling verses that have been attributed to the patriarch Jacob (peace be upon him). We have seen evidence of pagan epithets used as part of Jacob’s “prayer” for “blessings” for his sons, especially Joseph (peace be upon him). Could these verses be among the Bible’s so-called “Satanic Verses”? They certainly did not come from Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He). The Bible’s human authors were not “inspired” by God. They were inspired by the cultures around them and perhaps Satan as well. There may be some truth in the Bible (elsewhere, it condemns pagan beliefs), but there is falsehood as well.

And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] John L. Mclaughlin, The Ancient Near East: An Essential Guide (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2012), p. 101.

[3] The word “El” was used as the proper name of the Canaanite god but could also simply mean “God”. It may also have been the personal name of God in the Israelite-Semitic culture. Thus, names like “Ishma-El” (“El listens” or “God listens”) “Gabri-El” (“El is my strength” or “God is my strength”) incorporated the Semitic word “El”.

[4] Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p. 50.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 51.

[7] Ibid., p. 118.

[8] Ibid., p. 52.

[9] Randall T. Ganiban, “Jupiter,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, Volume I, eds. Michael Gagarin and Elaine Fantham (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 161.

[10] Compare the blasphemous “prayer” attributed to the blessed Jacob (peace be upon him) in Genesis 49 to the truly monotheistic Jacob in the Quran:

“Or did you witness when death came to Jacob? He asked his children, “Who will you worship after my passing?” They replied, “We will ˹continue to˺ worship your God, the God of your forefathers—Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac—the One God. And to Him we ˹all˺ submit”” (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:133, Mustafa Khattab translation).

[11] The Quran also condemns the worship of pagan gods, such as Baal, by the Israelites. In Surah As-Saffat, 37:123–127, Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) tells us how He sent the prophet Elias (peace be upon him) to the Israelites to condemn their worship of Baal:

“And Elias was indeed one of the messengers. ˹Remember˺ when he said to his people, “Will you not fear ˹Allah˺? Do you call upon ˹the idol of˺ Ba’l and abandon the Best of Creators-Allah, your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers? But they rejected him, so they will certainly be brought ˹for punishment˺.”

[12] Regarding Daniel 7:13, see my article on the book of Daniel: https://quranandbibleblog.com/2020/05/07/updated-article-the-book-of-daniel-a-critical-examination/

3 thoughts on “The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Genesis 49 and the “Prayer of Jacob”

  1. Pingback: The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Uncovering the Bible’s Hidden Tolerance of the Cult of Asherah – The Quran and Bible Blog

  2. Pingback: The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: The “Wrath” of Chemosh – The Quran and Bible Blog

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