Yahweh (//, or often // in English; Hebrew: יהוה) was the national god of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel (Samaria) and Judah. His exact origins are disputed, although they reach back to the early Iron Age and even the Late Bronze: his name may have begun as an epithet of El, head of the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon, but the earliest plausible mentions are in Egyptian texts that place him among the nomads of the southern Transjordan.
In the oldest biblical literature he is a typical ancient Near Eastern "divine warrior" who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies; he later became the main god of the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and of Judah, and over time the royal court and temple promoted Yahweh as the god of the entire cosmos, possessing all the positive qualities previously attributed to the other gods and goddesses. By the end of the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE), the very existence of foreign gods was denied, and Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the true god of all the world.
Bronze Age origins
The Israelites originated as Bronze Age Canaanites, but Yahweh does not appear to have been a Canaanite god,[Notes 1] and the explanation given for the name in Exodus 3:14, ehyeh ašer ehyeh ("I Am that I Am"), is considered to be a late theological gloss invented to explain Yahweh's name at a time when the meaning had been lost. The head of the Canaanite pantheon was El, and one theory holds that the name Yahweh is a shortened form of el dū yahwī ṣaba’ôt, "El who creates the hosts", meaning the heavenly army accompanying El as he marched beside the earthly armies of Israel. But Yahweh's earliest possible occurrence is as a place-name, "land of Shasu of YHW", in an Egyptian inscription from the time of Amenhotep III (1402–1363 BCE), the Shasu being nomads from Midian and Edom in northern Arabia. In this case a plausible etymology for the name could be from the root HWY, which would yield the meaning "he blows", appropriate to a weather divinity.
There is considerable but not universal support for the view that the Egyptian inscriptions refer to Yahweh. This raises the question of how he made his way to the north. A widely accepted hypothesis is that traders brought Yahweh to Israel along the caravan routes between Egypt and Canaan, the Kenite hypothesis, named after one of the groups involved. The strength of the Kenite hypothesis is that it ties together various points of data, such as the absence of Yahweh from Canaan, his links with Edom and Midian in the biblical stories, and the Kenite or Midianite ties of Moses. However, while it is entirely plausible that the Kenites, Midianites, and others may have introduced Yahweh to Israel, it is unlikely that they did so outside the borders of Israel or under the aegis of Moses, as the Exodus story has it.
Iron Age I: El, Yahweh, and the origins of Israel
Israel emerges into the historical record in the last decades of the 13th century BCE, at the very end of the Late Bronze Age, as the Canaanite city-state system was ending. The milieu from which Israelite religion emerged was accordingly Canaanite. El, "the kind, the compassionate", "the creator of creatures", was the chief of the Canaanite gods, and he, not Yahweh, was the original "God of Israel"—the word "Israel" is based on the name El rather than Yahweh. He lived in a tent on a mountain from whose base originated all the fresh waters of the world, with the goddess Asherah as his consort. This pair made up the top tier of the Canaanite pantheon; the second tier was made up of their children, the "seventy sons of Athirat" (a variant of the name Asherah). Prominent in this group was Baal, who had his home on Mount Zaphon; over time Baal became the dominant Canaanite deity, so that El became the executive power and Baal the military power in the cosmos. Baal's sphere was the thunderstorm with its life-giving rains, so that he was also a fertility god, although not quite the fertility god. Below the seventy second-tier gods was a third tier made up of comparatively minor craftsman and trader deities, with a fourth and final tier of divine messengers and the like.
El and his sons made up the Assembly of the Gods, each member of which had a human nation under his care, and a textual variant of Deuteronomy 32:8–9 describes the sons of El, including Yahweh, each receiving his own people:
When the Most High (Elyon, i.e., El) gave the nations their inheritance,
when he separated humanity,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of divine beings,
for Yahweh's portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.[Notes 2]
Despite these passages identifying Yahweh as the son of El or some other affiliated deity, it is clearly shown from very early on, El was already considered synonymous with Yahweh, as merely different names for the same deity, as suggested in Exodus 6:3. The preserved texts rarely distinguish between the two and there are no Biblical polemics against the worship of El. Historically, the identification of Yahweh as El by the Israelites was often presupposed, contributing to the transformation of the Hebrew ’el into a generic term for "God" as opposed to the name of a worshipped deity. Epithets such as El Shaddai are likewise applied to Yahweh alone in later contexts in order to strengthen the position of Yahweh as the people's deity.
Mark S. Smith sees the end of conflation of El and Yahweh as part of the process which he describes as "convergence" in the period of the Judges and the early monarchy. Convergence saw the coalescence of the qualities of other deities, and even the deities themselves, into Yahweh. Thus El became identified as a name of Yaweh, while Asherah ceased to be a distinct goddess. And the attributes of El, Asherah and Baal (notably, for Baal, his identification as a storm-god) were assimilated into Yahweh.
Following the introduction of Yahweh, a shift in theophoric naming occurred in which the original and most ancient biblical names paying tribute to El (Isra-el, Dani-el, Samu-el, Micha-el etc.) began to be displaced by names paying tribute to Yahweh (Adoni-jah, Jeremi-yah, Zechari-yah, Eli-jah etc.). Exodus 6:3 seeks to merge the ancient Canaanite deity El with Yahweh through a process of redaction:
In the earliest literature such as the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1–18, celebrating Yahweh's victory over Egypt at the exodus), Yahweh is a warrior for his people, a storm-god typical of ancient Near Eastern myths, marching out from a region to the south or south-east of Israel with the heavenly host of stars and planets that make up his army. Israel's battles are Yahweh's battles, Israel's victories are his victories, and while other peoples have other gods, Israel's god is Yahweh, who will procure a fertile resting-place for them:
There is none like God, O Jeshurun (i.e., Israel)
who rides through the heavens to your help ...
he subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old ...
so Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob's abode ...
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
and you shall tread on their backs. (Deuteronomy 33:26–29)
Iron Age II (930–586 BCE): Yahweh as God of Israel
Iron Age Yahweh was the national god of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and appears to have been worshiped only in these two kingdoms; this was unusual in the Ancient Near East but not unknown—the god Ashur, for example, was worshiped only by the Assyrians.
After the 9th century BCE the tribes and chiefdoms of Iron Age I were replaced by ethnic nation states, Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon and others, each with its national god, and all more or less equal. Thus Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, Milcom the god of the Ammonites, Qaus the god of the Edomites, and Yahweh the "God of Israel" (no "God of Judah" is mentioned anywhere in the Bible). In each kingdom the king was also the head of the national religion and thus the viceroy on Earth of the national god; in Jerusalem this was reflected each year when the king presided over a ceremony at which Yahweh was enthroned in the Temple.
The centre of Yahweh's worship lay in three great annual festivals coinciding with major events in rural life: Passover with the birthing of lambs, Shavuot with the cereal harvest, and Sukkot with the fruit harvest. These probably pre-dated the arrival of the Yahweh religion, but they became linked to events in the national mythos of Israel: Passover with the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot with the law-giving at Sinai, and Sukkot with the wilderness wanderings. The festivals thus celebrated Yahweh's salvation of Israel and Israel's status as his holy people, although the earlier agricultural meaning was not entirely lost. His worship presumably involved sacrifice, but many scholars have concluded that the rituals detailed in Leviticus 1–16, with their stress on purity and atonement, were introduced only after the Babylonian exile, and that in reality any head of a family was able to offer sacrifice as occasion demanded. (A number of scholars have also drawn the conclusion that infant sacrifice, whether to the underworld deity Molech or to Yahweh himself, was a part of Israelite/Judahite religion until the reforms of King Josiah in the late 7th century BCE). Sacrifice was presumably complemented by the singing or recital of psalms, but again the details are scant. Prayer played little role in official worship.
The Hebrew Bible gives the impression that the Jerusalem temple was always meant to be the central or even sole temple of Yahweh, but this was not the case: the earliest known Israelite place of worship is a 12th-century open-air altar in the hills of Samaria featuring a bronze bull reminiscent of Canaanite "Bull-El" (El in the form of a bull), and the archaeological remains of further temples have been found at Dan on Israel's northern border and at Arad in the Negev and Beersheba, both in the territory of Judah. Shiloh, Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah and Dan were also major sites for festivals, sacrifices, the making of vows, private rituals, and the adjudication of legal disputes.
Yahweh-worship was famously aniconic, meaning that the god was not depicted by a statue or other image. This is not to say that he was not represented in some symbolic form, and early Israelite worship probably focused on standing stones, but according to the Biblical texts the temple in Jerusalem featured Yahweh's throne in the form of two cherubim, their inner wings forming the seat and a box (the Ark of the Covenant) as a footstool, while the throne itself was empty. No satisfactory explanation of Israelite aniconism has been advanced, and a number of recent scholars have argued that Yahweh was in fact represented prior to the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah late in the monarchic period: to quote one recent study, "[a]n early aniconism, de facto or otherwise, is purely a projection of the post-exilic imagination" (MacDonald, 2007).
Yahweh and the rise of monotheism
Pre-exilic Israel, like its neighbours, was polytheistic, and Israelite monotheism was the result of unique historical circumstances. The original god of Israel was El, as the name demonstrates—its probable meaning is "may El rule" or some other sentence-form involving the name of El. In the early tribal period each tribe would have had its own patron god; when kingship emerged the state promoted Yahweh as the national god of Israel, supreme over the other gods, and gradually Yahweh absorbed all the positive traits of the other gods and goddesses. Yahweh and El merged at religious centres such as Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem, with El's name becoming a generic term for "god" and Yahweh, the national god, appropriating many of the older supreme god's titles such as El Shaddai (Almighty) and Elyon (Most High).
Asherah, formerly the wife of El, was worshipped as Yahweh's consort, and various biblical passages indicate that her statues were kept in his temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria. Yahweh may also have appropriated Anat, the wife of Baal, as his consort, as Anat-Yahu ("Anat of Yahu," i.e., Yahweh) is mentioned in 5th century BCE records from the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt. A goddess called the Queen of Heaven was also worshipped, probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Worship to Baal and Yahweh coexisted in the early period of Israel's history, but they were considered irreconcilable after the 9th century BCE, following the efforts of King Ahab and his queen Jezebel to elevate Baal to the status of national god, although the cult of Baal did continue for some time.
The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with Elijah in the 9th century BCE, but more likely with the prophet Hosea in the 8th; even then it remained the concern of a small party before gaining ascendancy in the exilic and early post-exilic period. The early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as being monolatrists rather than true monotheists; they did not believe that Yahweh was the only god in existence, but instead believed that he was the only god the people of Israel should worship. Finally, in the national crisis of the exile, the followers of Yahweh went a step further and outright denied that the other deities aside from Yahweh even existed, thus marking the transition from monolatrism to true monotheism.
Graeco-Roman syncretic folk religion
Yahweh is frequently invoked in Graeco-Roman magical texts dating from the second century BCE to the fifth century CE, most notably in the Greek Magical Papyri, under the names Iao, Adonai, Sabaoth, and Eloai. In these texts, he is often mentioned alongside traditional Graeco-Roman deities and also Egyptian deities. The archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Ouriel and Jewish cultural heroes such as Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are also invoked frequently as well. The frequent occurrence of Yahweh's name is probably due to Greek and Roman folk magicians seeking to make their spells more powerful through the invocation of a prestigious foreign deity. In his Quaestiones Convivales, the Greek writer Plutarch of Chaeronea claimed, without providing any evidence, that Yahweh was equivalent to Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, drunkenness, and ritual madness.
- "Canaanites" in this article means the indigenous Bronze Age and early Iron Age inhabitants of southern Syria, the coast of Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan – see Dever, 2002, p. 219
- For the varying texts of this verse, see Smith, 2012, pp. 139–40 and also chapter 4.
- Refer to any Hebrew interlinear of the Masoretic Text or Greek interlinear of LXX Septuagint for Exodus 6:3. Additionally, the NLT attempts to preserve these names at Exodus 6:3.
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