Yahweh[a] is a deity that was the national god of ancient Israel and Judah. The origins of his worship reach at least to the early Iron Age, and likely to the Late Bronze Age. In the oldest biblical literature, he resembles a storm-and-warrior deity who fructifies the land and leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies; at that time the Israelites worshipped him alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, Asherah and Baal; in later centuries, El and Yahweh became conflated and El-linked epithets such as El Shaddai came to be applied to Yahweh alone, and other gods and goddesses such as Baal and Asherah were absorbed into Yahwist religion.
Towards the end of the Babylonian captivity, the very existence of foreign gods was denied, and Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the one true God of all the world, giving birth to Judaism, which has c. 14–15 million adherents today. During the Second Temple period, speaking the name of Yahweh in public became regarded as taboo; Jews began to substitute the divine name with the word adonai (אֲדֹנָי), meaning "My Lords" but used as a singular like "Elohim", and some time after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the original pronunciation was forgotten although the existing texts were preserved by Judaism.
During the Second Temple period, speaking the name of Yahweh in public became regarded as taboo, and Jews instead began to substitute the name with the word adonai, meaning "My Lord". In Roman times, following the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the original pronunciation of the god's name was forgotten entirely. Outside of Jewish history, Yahweh was also frequently invoked in Greco-Roman magical texts from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE under the names Iao, Adonai, Sabaoth, and Eloai.
The god's name was written in paleo-Hebrew as 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 (יהוה in block script), transliterated as YHWH; modern scholarship has agreed to represent this as Yahweh. The shortened forms "Yeho-" and "Yo-" appear in personal names and in phrases such as "Hallelujah!"
This name is not attested other than among the Israelites and seems not to have any plausible etymology. Ehye ašer ehye ("I Am that I Am"), the explanation presented in Exodus 3:14, appears to be a late theological gloss invented at a time when the original meaning had been forgotten. Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross has proposed that Yahweh derives from an epiphet of El: ḏū yahwī ṣabaʾôt, "he (El,) who creates the hosts" (contracted from ʾel zū yahwī ṣabaʾôt), perhaps the epiphet of El as patron deity of a Midianite league. This argument has been criticized as having numerous weaknesses, including the dissimilar characters of the two gods El and Yahweh, Yahweh's association with the storm (an association never made for El), and the fact that ʾel zū yahwī ṣabaʾôt is nowhere attested either inside or outside the Bible.
The sacrality of the name, as well as the Commandment against "taking the name 'in vain'", led to increasingly strict prohibitions on speaking or pronouncing the term in writing. Rabbinic sources suggest that, by the Second Temple period, the name of God was pronounced only once a year, by the high priest, on the Day of Atonement, though it is more than likely that this is an exaggeration, and that in fact, the name was pronounced daily in the liturgy of the Temple in the priestly benediction of worshippers, after the daily sacrifice; whereas outside the Temple and in the synagogues, a substitute (probably "Adonai") was used. With the destruction of the Temple, the name was no longer used in any liturgy, and its pronunciation was forgotten by the 5th century CE.
(Note that other sources will give slightly different dates)
- Late Bronze: 1550–1200 BCE
- Iron Age I: 1200–1000 BCE
- Iron Age II: 1000–586 BCE
- Neo-Babylonian: 586–539 BCE
- Persian: 539–332 BCE
Other academic terms often used include First Temple period, from the construction of the Temple in 957 BCE to its destruction in 586 BCE, exilic for the period of the Exile from 586–539 BCE (identical with Neo-Babylonian above), post-Exilic for later periods and Second Temple period from the reconstruction of the Temple in 515 BCE until its destruction in 70 CE.
Late Bronze Age origins (1550–1200 BCE)
Scholars disagree as to the origins of the worship of the god Yahweh. The oldest plausible occurrence of his name is in the phrase "Shasu of Yhw" (Egyptian: 𓇌𓉔𓍯𓅱 yhwꜣw) in an Egyptian inscription from the time of Amenhotep III (1402–1363 BCE), the Shasu being nomads from Midian and Edom in northern Arabia and Yhw being a place-name. The current consensus is therefore that Yahweh was a "divine warrior from the southern region associated with Seir, Edom, Paran and Teman". This raises the question of how Yahweh came to be worshipped further north. An answer many scholars consider plausible is the Kenite hypothesis, which holds that traders brought Yahweh to Israel along the caravan routes between Egypt and Canaan. This 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, but its major weaknesses are that the majority of Israelites were firmly rooted in Canaan, and doubts as to the historicity of Moses. If the Kenite hypothesis is to be maintained without accepting some form of the Moses tradition, then it must be assumed that the Israelites encountered Yahweh (and the Midianites/Kenites) inside Israel.
Iron Age I (1200–1000 BCE)
Iron Age I corresponds approximately to the Judges period of the Bible. During this period, Israel was a confederation of tribes, each of which was (by then) a territorial entity with boundaries and rights. The earliest known reference to Israel is a stele of the pharaoh Merneptah dated to 1208 BCE. Although the Biblical account draws a clear distinction between Israelites and Canaanites in this period, and this was followed in early scholarship, the modern consensus is that there was no distinction in language or material culture between these groups and scholars accordingly define Israelite culture as a subset of Canaanite culture.
With the notable exception of Yahweh himself, the deities worshipped by Israel were also Canaanite. These included El, the ruler of the pantheon, Asherah, his consort, and Baal. El and his seventy sons, who included Baal and Yahweh, made up the Assembly of the Gods, each member of which had a human nation under his care; a textual variant of Deuteronomy 32:8–9 describes Yahweh receiving Israel when El divided the nations of the world among his sons:
When the Most High ('elyôn) gave to 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.[b]
The etymology of the name Israel is unclear, but a plausible suggestion is "El rules". This implies the original deity of Israel was El, but from some early date Yahweh was understood as Israel's god, as reflected in the quotation above, which refers to El having allotted Israel to Yahweh. El and Yahweh were subsequently identified and the name of El became a generic noun meaning "god". Yahweh is expressly identified with El Shadday in Exodus 6:2–3. During Iron I, Yahweh acquired characteristics of El, such as compassion, being bearded, and commanding the divine council.
In the earliest Biblical literature Yahweh is 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 to do battle with the enemies of his people Israel:
Yahweh, when you went out of Seir,
when you marched out of the field of Edom,
the earth trembled, the sky also dropped.
Yes, the clouds dropped water.
The mountains quaked at Yahweh’s presence,
even Sinai at the presence of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
From the sky the stars fought.
From their courses, they fought against Sisera.
Iron Age II (1000–586 BCE)
Iron II saw the emergence of nation-states in the Southern Levant including Israel, Judah, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom and Phoenicia. Each kingdom had its own national god: 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. In each kingdom the king was also the head of the national religion and thus the viceroy on Earth of the national god.
Yahweh filled the role of national god in the kingdom of Israel (Samaria), which emerged in the 10th century BCE; and also in Judah, which emerged probably a century later (no "God of Judah" is mentioned anywhere in the Bible). During the reign of Ahab (c. 871–852 BCE), and particularly following his marriage to Jezebel, Baal may have briefly replaced Yahweh as the national god of Israel (but not Judah).
In 9th century, the Yahweh-religion began to separate itself from its Canaanite heritage, with the rejection of Baal worship (associated with the prophets Elijah and Elisha). This process continued over the period 800–500 BCE with legal and prophetic condemnations of the asherim, sun-worship and worship on the high places, along with practices pertaining to the dead and other aspects of the old religion. Features of Baal, El, and Asherah were absorbed into Yahweh, El (or 'el) (Hebrew: אל) became a generic term meaning "god" as opposed to the name of a specific god, and epithets such as El Shaddai came to be applied to Yahweh alone. In this atmosphere a struggle emerged between those who believed that Yahweh alone should be worshipped, and those who worshipped him within a larger group of gods. The Yahweh-alone party, the party of the prophets and Deuteronomists, ultimately triumphed, and their victory lies behind the biblical narrative of an Israel vacillating between periods of "following other gods" and periods of fidelity to Yahweh. When Judah became an Assyrian vassal-state after the destruction of Israel in 722 BCE, the relationship between the king and dynastic god Yahweh in Judah came to be thought of in terms of Assyrian vassal treaties.
Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (586–332 BCE)
In 587/6 BCE Jerusalem fell to the Neo-Babylonians, the Temple was destroyed, and the leadership of the community were deported. The next 50 years, the Babylonian exile, were of pivotal importance to the history of Israelite religion. As the traditional sacrifices to Yahweh (see below) could not be performed outside Israel, other practices including sabbath observance and circumcision gained new significance. In the writing of second Isaiah, Yahweh was no longer seen as exclusive to Israel but as extending his promise to all who would keep the sabbath and observe his covenant. In 539 BCE Babylon in turn fell to the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great, the exiles were given permission to return (although only a minority did so), and by about 500 BCE the Temple was rebuilt.
Towards the end of the Second Temple period, speaking the name of Yahweh in public became regarded as taboo. When reading from the scriptures, Jews began to substitute the divine name with the word adonai (אֲדֹנָי), meaning "Lord". The High Priest of Israel was permitted to speak the name once in the Temple during the Day of Atonement, but at no other time and in no other place. During the Hellenistic period, the scriptures were translated into Greek by the Jews of the Egyptian diaspora. Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures render both the tetragrammaton and adonai as kyrios (κύριος), meaning "the Lord". After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the original pronunciation of the tetragrammaton was forgotten.
The period of Persian rule saw the development of expectation in a future human king who would rule purified Israel as Yahweh's representative at the end of time—a messiah. The first to mention this were Haggai and Zechariah, both prophets of the early Persian period. They saw the messiah in Zerubbabel, a descendant of the House of David who seemed, briefly, to be about to re-establish the ancient royal line, or in Zerubbabel and the first High Priest, Joshua (Zechariah writes of two messiahs, one royal and the other priestly). These early hopes were dashed (Zerubabbel disappeared from the historical record, although the High Priests continued to be descended from Joshua), and thereafter there are merely general references to a Messiah of David (i.e. a descendant). From these ideas, Second Temple Judaism would later emerge, whence Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, and Islam.
Festivals and sacrifice
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 Mount 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.
Yahweh's role as the national god was reflected each year in Jerusalem when the king presided over a ceremony at which Yahweh was enthroned in the Temple. 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 BCE 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, 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
The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with the prophet 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 Babylonian exile 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 Yahweh was the only god in existence, but instead believed 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.
Yahweh is frequently invoked in Graeco-Roman magical texts dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th 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 Egyptian deities. The archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Ouriel and Jewish cultural heroes such as Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are also invoked frequently. The frequent occurrence of Yahweh's name was likely due to Greek and Roman folk magicians seeking to make their spells more powerful through the invocation of a prestigious foreign deity.
A coin issued by Pompey to celebrate his successful conquest of Judaea showed a kneeling, bearded figure grasping a branch (a common Roman symbol of submission) subtitled BACCHIVS IVDAEVS or "The Jewish Bacchus", which has been interpreted as depicting Yahweh as a local variety of Dionysus. However, as coins minted with such iconography ordinarily depicted subjected persons, and not the gods of a subjected people, some have assumed the coin simply depicts the surrender of a Judean who was called "Bacchius", sometimes identified as the Hasmonean king Aristobulus II, who was overthrown by Pompey's campaign. In any event, Tacitus, John the Lydian, Cornelius Labeo, and Marcus Terentius Varro similarly identify Yahweh with the Dionysus (i.e., Bacchus). Jews themselves frequently used symbols that were also associated with Dionysus such as kylixes, amphorae, leaves of ivy, and clusters of grapes, a similarity Plutarch used to argue that Jews worshipped a hypostasized form of Bacchus-Dionysus. In his Quaestiones Convivales, Plutarch further notes that the Jews hail their god with cries of "Euoi" and "Sabi", phrases associated with the worship of Dionysus. According to Sean M. McDonough, Greek speakers may have confused Aramaic words such as Sabbath, Alleluia, or even possibly some variant of the name Yahweh itself for more familiar terms associated with Dionysus. Other Roman writers, such as Juvenal, Petronius, and Florus, identified Yahweh with the god Caelus.
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