Yahwism, as it is called by modern scholars, was the religion of ancient Israel and Judah.[1] An ancient Semitic religion of the Iron Age, Yahwism was essentially polytheistic and had a pantheon, with various gods and goddesses being worshipped by the Israelites.[2] At the head of this pantheon was Yahweh—held in an especially high regard as the two Israelite kingdoms' national god—and his consort Asherah.[3] Following this duo were second-tier gods and goddesses, such as Baal, Shamash, Yarikh, Mot, and Astarte, each of whom had their own priests and prophets and numbered royalty among their devotees.[4][5]

Sherd of a pithos found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, bearing the inscription "Yahweh and his Asherah"

The practices of Yahwism included festivals, ritual sacrifices, vow-making, private rituals, and the religious adjudication of legal disputes.[6] For most of its history, the Temple in Jerusalem was not the sole or central place of worship dedicated to Yahweh, with many locations throughout Israel, Judah, and Samaria.[7][8] However, it was still significant to the Israelite king, who effectively led the national religion as the national god's worldly viceroy.[9]

Yahwism underwent several redevelopments and recontextualizations as the notion of divinities aside from or comparable to Yahweh was gradually degraded by new religious currents and ideas. Possibly beginning with the hypothesized United Kingdom of Israel, the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah had a joint religious tradition comprising cultic worship of Yahweh. Later theological changes concerning the evolution of Yahweh's status initially remained largely confined to small groups,[10] only spreading to the population at large during the general political turbulence of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. By the end of the Babylonian captivity, Yahwism began turning away from polytheism (or, by some accounts, Yahweh-centric monolatry) and transitioned towards monotheism, where Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator deity and the only entity worthy of worship.[11] Following the end of the Babylonian captivity and the subsequent establishment of Yehud Medinata in the 4th century BCE, Yahwism coalesced into what is known as Second Temple Judaism,[12][13] from which the modern ethnic religions of Judaism and Samaritanism, as well as the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam, would later emerge.


Records and developments

The central element of ancient Israel's religion through most of the monarchic period was the worship of a god named Yahweh, and for this reason the religion of Israel is often referred to as Yahwism.[1] Yahweh, however, was not the "original" god of Israel. Rather it was El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon whose name forms the basis of the name "Israel" (Hebrew: יִשְׂרָאֵל),[14] and none of the Hebrew patriarchs, tribes of Israel, Judges, or early monarchs have a Yahwistic theophoric name (i.e., a name incorporating the name of Yahweh).[15] It is unclear how, where, or why Yahweh appeared in the Levant; even his name is a point of confusion.[16] The exact date of his first appearance is also ambiguous: the term Israel first enters historical records in the 13th century BCE with the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, and, while the worship of Yahweh is circumstantially attested to as early as the 12th century BCE,[17] there is no attestation of even the name "Yahweh" in the Levant until some four hundred years later with the Mesha Stele (9th century BCE).[18][a] Because of this, Christian Frevel argues that YHWH worship was rooted in the Kingdom of Israel and preserved by the Omride clan.[20] Nevertheless, many scholars believe that the shared worship of Yahweh played a role in the emergence of Israel in the Late Bronze Age (circa 1200 BCE).[21]

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 the Canaanite El-bull.[citation needed] Early Israel was a society of rural villages, but in time urban centers grew up and society became more structured and complex.[22] 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;[7] archaeological remains of other temples have been found at Dan on Israel's northern border; Arad; Beersheba; and Motza in the southern region of Judah.[23] Shiloh, Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah, and Dan were also major sites for festivals, sacrifices, vow-making, private rituals, and the adjudication of legal disputes.[6]

During an era of religious syncretism, it became accepted among the Israelite people to consider the Canaanite god El as the same as Yahweh.[24] El was soon thought to have always been the same deity as Yahweh, as evidenced by Exodus 6:2–3.[24] Additionally, onomastic evidence indicates that some ancient Israelite families in the pre-exilic period seem to have syncretized the other Canaanite deities with Yahweh, a phenomenon which some scholars have described as "an inclusive sort of monolatry".[25] According to Theodore J. Lewis, different Israelite locales held different beliefs about El but viewed him as a "regional god" that was not entwined with the monarchic nation-state. Because of this, small-scale sacred places were built instead of temples.[26]

Transition to Judaism and Samaritanism

The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with prophet Elijah in the 9th century BCE, and at the latest with 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.[10] The early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as monolatrists rather than monotheists. [27] They believed that Yahweh was the only god the people of Israel should worship—a noticeable departure from the traditional beliefs of the Israelites nonetheless.[28] It was during the national crisis of the Babylonian Exile that the followers of Yahweh went a step further and denied that any deities aside from Yahweh even existed—marking the transition from monolatrism to monotheism, and, by extension, from Yahwism to Judaism.[11] Some scholars date the start of widespread monotheism to the 8th century BCE, and view it as a response to Neo-Assyrian aggression.[10][29]

In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to the Persians, ending the Babylonian exile. According to Ezra 2, 42,360 of the exiled Israelites returned to Jerusalem. As descendants of the original exiles, they had never lived in Judah; nevertheless, in the view of the authors of the Biblical literature, they, and not those who had remained in the land, were "Israel".[30] Judah, now called Yehud, was a Persian province, and the returnees, with their Persian connections in Babylon, secured positions of authority. Though they represented the descendants of the old "Yahweh-alone" movement, the religion they came to institute was significantly different from monarchic Yahwism.[12] Differences included new concepts of priesthood; a new focus on written law and thus on scripture; and a concern with preserving purity by prohibiting intermarriage outside the community of this new "Israel". This new faith later evolved into Second Temple Judaism.[12] The competing religion of Samaritanism also emerged from the "Yahweh-alone" movement.[13]

Beliefs and practices


The Holy of Holies in a ruined temple at Tel Arad, with two incense pillars and two stele, one to Yahweh, and one most likely to Asherah. The temple was probably destroyed as a part of Josiah's reforms.

There is a broad consensus among modern scholars that the religion of ancient Israel was polytheistic, involving many gods and goddesses.[31] The supreme god was Yahweh, whose name appears as an element on personal seals from the late 9th to the 6th centuries BCE.[32] Alongside Yahweh was his consort Asherah,[33] (replaced by the goddess "Anat-Yahu" in the temple of the 5th century Jewish settlement Elephantine in Egypt),[34] and various biblical passages indicate that statues of the goddess were kept in Yahweh's temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria.[35][36]

Below Yahweh and Asherah were second tier gods and goddesses such as Baal, Shamash, Yarikh, Mot, and Astarte, all of whom had their priests and prophets and numbered royalty among their devotees.[4] A goddess called the "Queen of Heaven" was also worshiped: she was probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar,[37] although the phrase is possibly a title of Asherah.[38]

A third tier may also have existed, made up of specialist deities such as the god of snakebite-cures – his name is unknown, as the biblical text identifies him only as Nehushtan, a pun based on the shape of his representation and the metal of which it was made[39] – and below these again was a fourth and final group of minor divine beings such as the mal'ak, the messengers of the higher gods, who in later times became the angels of Christianity, Judaism and Islam,[5] and other heavenly beings such as cherubim.

Worship of 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,[40] although the cult of Baal did continue for some time.[41]


The practices of Yahwism were largely characteristic of other Semitic religions of the time, including festivals, sacrifices, vow-making, private rituals, and the adjudication of legal disputes.[6] The center of Yahweh-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.[42] 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.[7] 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.[43]

Animal sacrifices played a big role in Yahwism, with the subsequent burning and the sprinkling of their blood, a practice described in the Bible as a daily Temple ritual for the Jewish people. Sacrifice was presumably complemented by the singing or recital of psalms, but the details are scant.[44] The rituals detailed in Leviticus 1–16, with their stress on purity and atonement, were followed only after the Babylonian exile and the Yahwism/Judaism transition. In reality, any head of a family could offer sacrifice as occasion demanded.[45] Prayer itself did not have a statutory role in temple ritual, but was employed on other occasions.[46]

Places of worship referred to as high places (Hebrew: במה bamah and plural במות bamot or bamoth) were found in many towns and villages in ancient Israel as places of sacrifice.[47] From the Hebrew Bible and from existing remains a good idea may be formed of the appearance of such a place of worship. It was often on the hill above the town, as at Ramah (1 Samuel 9:12–14); there was a stele (matzevah), the seat of the deity, and a Asherah pole (named after the goddess Asherah), which marked the place as sacred and was itself an object of worship; there was a stone altar (מִזְבֵּחַ mīzbēaḥ "slaughter place"), often of considerable size and hewn out of the solid rock or built of unhewn stones (Exodus 20:21), on which offerings were burnt; a cistern for water, and perhaps low stone tables for dressing the sacrifices; sometimes also a hall (לִשְׁכָּה līškā) for the sacrificial feasts. Ancient Israelite religion was centered on these sites; at festival seasons, or to make or fulfil a vow, an Israelite might journey to more famous sanctuaries at a distance from home, but ordinarily offerings were made at the bamah of his own town.[48]

Talismans and the mysterious teraphim were also probably used. It is also possible Yahwism employed ecstatic cultic rituals (compare the biblical tale of David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant) at times when they became popular, and possibly child sacrifice.[49][50][51]

See also


  1. ^ A possible candidate for an earlier occurrence of the name "Yahweh" is the Gezer calendar, commonly dated to the 10th century BCE,[19] which is believed to contain the partially damaged signature of the scribe who wrote it; usually reconstructed as Abijah. If this reconstruction is indeed accurate, it would place Yahweh's earliest explicit attestation at least a century before the Mesha Stele. Still, because the name is incomplete, its status as a Yahwistic theophoric name is uncertain.



  1. ^ a b Miller 2000, p. 1.
  2. ^ Sommer 2009, p.145: It is a commonplace of modern biblical scholarship that Israelite religion prior to the Babylonian exile was basically polytheistic. [...] Many scholars argue that ancient Israelites worshipped a plethora of gods and goddesses [...].
  3. ^ Niehr 1995, p. 54-55.
  4. ^ a b Handy 1995, pp. 39–40.
  5. ^ a b Meier 1999, p. 45–46.
  6. ^ a b c Bennett 2002, p. 83.
  7. ^ a b c Davies 2010, p. 112.
  8. ^ Miller 2000, p. 88.
  9. ^ Miller 2000, p. 90.
  10. ^ a b c Albertz 1994, p. 61.
  11. ^ a b Betz 2000, p. 917 "With the work of the Second Isaiah toward the end of the Babylonian Exile, Israelite monotheism took on a more forceful form of expression. Yahweh is proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos (Isa. 40:21-23, 28). Foreign deities do not exist; there is only one true God, Yahweh (40:12-31; 43:8-13; 46:5-13)."
  12. ^ a b c Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 402.
  13. ^ a b Pummer 2016, p. 25.
  14. ^ Smith 2002, p. 32.
  15. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 127.
  16. ^ Lewis 2020, p. 211.
  17. ^ Dever 2003b, p. 125.
  18. ^ Miller 2000, p. 40.
  19. ^ Aaron Demsky (2007), Reading Northwest Semitic Inscriptions, Near Eastern Archaeology 70/2.
  20. ^ Frevel, Christian (2021). "When and from Where did YHWH Emerge? Some Reflections on Early Yahwism in Israel and Judah". Entangled Religions. 12 (2). doi:10.46586/er.12.2021.8776. hdl:2263/84039 – via RUB.
  21. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 113–14, 126–27.
  22. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 113–14.
  23. ^ Hess 2020, p. 248–49.
  24. ^ a b Smith 2001, pp. 141–42, 146–47.
  25. ^ Albertz 2012, p. 362.
  26. ^ Lewis 2020, pp. 73–118.
  27. ^ Eakin 1971, pp. 70 and 263.
  28. ^ McKenzie 1990, p. 1287.
  29. ^ Smith 2016, p. 287.
  30. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 397.
  31. ^ Sommer 2009, p. 145.
  32. ^ Hess 2020, p. 251.
  33. ^ Niehr 1995, pp. 54–55.
  34. ^ Day 2002, p. 143.
  35. ^ Ackerman 2022, p. 342.
  36. ^ Barker 2012, pp. 154–57.
  37. ^ Ackerman 2022b, p. 16.
  38. ^ Barker 2012, p. 41.
  39. ^ Handy 1995, p. 41.
  40. ^ Smith 2002, p. 47.
  41. ^ Smith 2002, p. 74.
  42. ^ Albertz 1994, p. 89.
  43. ^ Gorman 2000, p. 458.
  44. ^ Davies & Rogerson 2005, pp. 158–65.
  45. ^ Davies & Rogerson 2005, pp. 151–52.
  46. ^ Cohen 1999, p. 302.
  47. ^ Pierce & Keimer 2022, pp. 468–69.
  48. ^   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "High Place". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 456–457.
  49. ^ Niditch 1993, p. 47.
  50. ^ Ackerman 1992, p. 137.
  51. ^ Gnuse 1997, p. 118.