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For other uses, see Yahweh (disambiguation). See also: Tetragrammaton, Jehovah, and God in Abrahamic religions

Yahweh (/ˈjɑːhw/, or often /ˈjɑːw/ in English; Hebrew: יהוה‎), was the national god of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The name may have originated as an epithet of the god El, head of the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon ("El who is present, who makes himself manifest"),[1] and the earliest plausible reference to a deity called "Yahweh" appears in Egyptian texts of the 13th century BC that place him among the Shasu-Bedu of southern Transjordan.[2] He appears to have been unique to Israel and Judah.[3]

In the oldest biblical literature (12th–11th centuries BC), Yahweh is a typical ancient Near Eastern "divine warrior" who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies; he and Israel are bound by a covenant under which Yahweh will protect Israel and, in turn, Israel will not worship other gods.[4]:158–159 At a later period, Yahweh functioned as the dynastic cult (the god of the royal house)[5]:69–70 with the royal courts promoting him as the supreme god over all others in the pantheon (notably Baal, El, and Asherah (who is thought by some scholars to have been his consort)).[6][7]:917 Over time, Yahwism became increasingly intolerant of rivals, and 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.[5]:69–70 [7]:917 With the work of Second Isaiah (the theoretical author of the second part of the Book of Isaiah) towards the end of the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), 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.[7]:917

By early post-biblical times, the name of Yahweh had virtually ceased to be pronounced. In modern Judaism, it is replaced in reading with the word Adonai, meaning Lord, and is understood to be God's proper name and to denote his mercy.[8] Many Christian Bibles follow the Jewish custom and replace it with "the LORD".

Name and origins[edit]

The Tetragrammaton in Phoenician alphabet (10th century BC to 135 AD), Paleo-Hebrew (10th century BC to 4th century AD) and square Hebrew (3rd century BC to present) scripts. NOTE: Hebrew is written from right to left.
A YHD drachm, a silver coin probably struck by the Persian administration in Jerusalem (4th century BC). The coin shows a deity seated on a winged wheel, sometimes interpreted as a depiction of Yahweh (Yahu). The legend reads either "YHD" ("Judea") or "YHW"' ("Yahu").

In the Hebrew Bible the name of God is written as יהוה (YHWH), without vowels. The original pronunciation of the name was lost many centuries ago, but evidence suggests that it was probably Yahweh, meaning approximately "he causes to be" or "he creates".[9]:2

Yahweh appears to have been unique to Israel and Judah,[3] and his origin remains unclear.[10] Two theories have been proposed. The first is that his name originated in southern Canaan as a title for El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon: el dū yahwī ṣaba’ôt, "El who creates the hosts", meaning the heavenly army accompanying El as he marched out beside the earthly armies of Israel. The alternative position is that El and Yahewh were originally separate gods who merged gradually.[11] Some support for the latter hypothesis comes from the place-name "land of Š3sw-yhw," or "the land of Shasu-y/iw", which appears in Egyptian inscriptions from the late Bronze Age; this was apparently located in the Negev or Sinai, and may be linked to the name Yahweh, although the relevance and even reliability has not been universally accepted.[12]

Assuming that Yahweh did originate as the god of Shasu nomads in southern Canaan (Edom, Moab, Midian) in the 14th century BC, his worship could have been transmitted northwards to Israel via a people known as the Kenites. According to this Kenite, or Midianite hypothesis Yahweh was probably worshipped by these nomadic tribes in Southern Palestine. For example there is a narrative tradition of Moses’ Midianite or Kenite father-in-law in Exodus 2:16; 3:1; and Judges 1:16; 4:11.[13] This hypothesis does not propose that the these people were identical with the Israelites, but that they constituted a major element in the tribal amalgam that later became the Kingdom of Israel.[14] [15]

Adoption as national god of Israel[edit]

Scholars agree that the Israelites arose peacefully and internally in the highlands of Canaan[16] - in the words of archaeologist William Dever, "most of those who came to call themselves Israelites ... were or had been indigenous Canaanites."[17]

El was the head of the Canaanite pantheon, with Asherah as his consort and Baal and other deities making up the pantheon,[18] and several pieces of evidence have led scholars to the conclusion that El was the original "God of Israel"—the word "Israel" is based on the name of El rather than on that of Yahweh.[18] Names of the oldest characters in the Torah show reverence towards El without similar displays towards Yahweh, and Yahweh reveals to Moses that he has been El all along.[19] With the rise of Yahweh, Yahweh and Baal at first co-existed and later competed within the popular religion,[20]

What distinguished Israel from other emerging Iron Age Canaanite societies was the belief in Yahweh as the national god, rather than, for example, Chemosh, the god of Moab, or Milcom, the god of the Ammonites.[4]:156

Yahwism and the monarchy[edit]

In the monarchic period the king functioned as head of the national religion.[9]:90 The kings used national religion to exert their authority, but the worship of gods other than Yahweh continued.[7]:917 Evidence increasingly suggests that many Israelites worshiped Asherah as Yahweh's consort.[21]:395

Both the archaeological evidence and the Biblical texts document tensions between groups comfortable with the worship of Yahweh alongside local deities such as Asherah and Baal and those insistent on worship of Yahweh alone during the monarchal period (1 Kings 18, Jeremiah 2)[22][23] The Deuteronomistic source gives evidence of a strong monotheistic party during the reign of king Josiah during the late 7th century BCE, but the strength and prevalence of earlier monotheistic worship of Yahweh is widely debated based on interpretations of how much of the Deuteronomistic history is accurately based on earlier sources, and how much Deuteronomistic redactors have re-worked that history to bolster their own theological views.[23]:151–154[24] The archaeological record documents widespread polytheism in and around Israel during the period of the monarchy.[22]

Archaeologists and historical scholars use a variety of ways to organize and interpret the available iconographic and textual information. William G. Dever contrasts "official religion/state religion/book religion" of the élite with “folk religion” of the masses.[25] Rainer Albertz contrasts "official religion" with "family religion", "personal piety", and "internal religious pluralism".[26] Jacques Berlinerblau analyzes the evidence in terms of "official religion" and "popular religion" in ancient Israel.[27]

Patrick D. Miller has distinguished three broad categories of Yahwism: orthodox, heterodox, and syncretistic.[9]:46–62 Orthodox Yahwism demanded the exclusive worship of Yahweh (although without denying the existence of other gods). The powers of blessing (health, wealth, continuity, fertility) and salvation (forgiveness, victory, deliverance from oppression and threat) resided fully in Yahweh, and his will was communicated via oracle and prophetic vision or audition. Divination, soothsaying, and necromancy were prohibited. The individual or community could cry out to Yahweh and would receive a divine response, mediated by priestly or prophetic figures.[9]:48

Sanctuaries were erected in various places and were used to express devotion to Yahweh by means of sacrifice, festival meals and celebrations, prayer, and praise. Toward the end of the seventh century (BCE) in Judah, worship of Yahweh was restricted to the temple in Jerusalem, while the major sanctuaries in the northern kingdom were at Bethel (near the southern border) and Dan (in the north). Certain times were set for the gathering of the people to celebrate the gifts of Yahweh and the deity's acts of deliverance and redemption.[9]:48–50

Everything in the moral realm was understood as a part of relation to Yahweh as a manifestation of holiness. Divine law protected family relationships and the welfare of the weaker members of society; purity of conduct, dress, food, etc. were regulated. Religious leadership resided in priests who were associated with sanctuaries, and also in prophets, who were bearers of divine oracles. In the political sphere the king was understood as the appointee and agent of Yahweh.[9]:50–51

Miller describes heterodox Yahwism as a mixture of elements of orthodox Yahwism with particular practices that conflicted with orthodox Yahwism or were not customarily a part of it. For example, heterodox Yahwism included the presence of cult objects rejected by orthodox expressions, such as the Asherah, figurines of various sorts (females, horses and riders, animals and birds, and the calves or bulls of the Northern Kingdom). The "high places" as centers of worship seem to have moved from an acceptable place within Yahwism to an increasingly condemned status in official and orthodox circles. Efforts to know the future or the will of the deity could also be understood as heterodox if they went outside the boundaries of orthodox Yahwism, and even commonly accepted revelatory mechanisms such as dreams could be condemned if the resulting message was perceived as false. Heterodox Yahwists often consulted mediums, wizards, and diviners.[9]:52–56

Syncretism covers the worship of Baal, the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars), the "Queen of Heaven" and other deities as well as practices such as child sacrifice: "Other gods were invoked and serviced in time of need or blessing and provision for life when the worship of Yahweh seemed inadequate for those purposes."[9]:58–59 Evidence increasingly suggests that many Israelites worshipped Asherah as the consort of Yahweh, and various biblical passages indicate that statues of the goddess were kept in Yahweh's temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria.[21]:395 Further evidence includes the many female figurines unearthed in ancient Israel, supporting the view that Asherah functioned as a goddess and consort of Yahweh and was worshiped as the Queen of Heaven.[25]

Yahweh after the monarchy[edit]

Following the destruction of the monarchy and loss of the land at the beginning of the 6th century (the period of the Babylonian exile), a search for a new identity led to a re-examination of Israel's traditions. Yahweh now became the only god in the cosmos.[23]:193

The fifth century Elephantine papyri suggest that, "Even in exile and beyond, the veneration of a female deity endured."[28]:185 The texts were written by a group of Jews living at Elephantine near the Nubian border, whose religion has been described as "nearly identical to Iron Age II Judahite religion".[29] The papyri describe the Jews as worshiping Anat-Yahu (or AnatYahu). Anat-Yahu is described as either the wife[30][31] of Yahweh or as a hypostatized aspect of Yahweh.[21]:394[29]

During the Second Temple Period, Yahweh's name ceased to be vocalized. Rabbinical sources indicate that there was an exception for the temple liturgy, where the name was only pronounced once a year, by the high priest, on the Day of Atonement.[32] Maimonides relates that only the priests in Temple in Jerusalem spoke the name of Yahweh aloud, when they recited the Priestly Blessing over the people daily.[33] Since the destruction of Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Yahweh is no longer spoken within Judaism.


An 8th century BCE pottery shard (or ostracon) inscribed "Berakhti etkhem l’YHWH Shomron ul’Asherato" (Hebrew: בירכתי אתכם ליהוה שומרון ולאשרתו‎ "I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah") was discovered by Israeli archeologists at Quntilat 'Ajrud in the course of excavations in the Sinai desert in 1975. Another inscription, from Khirbet el-Kom near Hebron, reads: "Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!".[34][35]

These and other discoveries, together with a reassesment of the biblical texts, have led the majority of contemporary scholars to the conclusion that the original god of Israel was the common West Semitic father-god El, as witnessed by the religious history of Shechem, the home of "El Berit", (El of the Covenant, a Late Bronze Age title of El). Yahweh and El later merged at religious centres such as Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem, and the priesthood of Yahweh inherited the religious lore of El.[23]:140 As a member of the original Israelite pantheon Yahweh had his own consort, the goddess Asherah.[36] The emergence of Yahweh-centred monotheism in ancient Israel has thus come to be seen as a late and gradual phenomenon, passing through several stages of development before consistent monotheism became the norm in the Babylonian Exile or even later.[37]

Development of monotheism and aniconism[edit]

Israelite monotheism developed gradually between the emergence of Israel in the 10th century BCE and the end of the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century.[38] Since the late 1980s there has been a major shift in the scholarly consensus on when and how the tradition of aniconism (the prohibition on images of God) arose in Israel.[39]

Post-Iron Age developments[edit]

By early post-biblical times, the name Yahweh had ceased to be pronounced aloud, except once a year by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies; on other occasions it was replaced in speech by Adonai, meaning "my Lord". [8] Some of the surviving Septuagint manuscripts from the first century BC later replaced the Tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, meaning "lord".[40][41] In modern Judaism, it is one of the seven names of God which must not be erased, and is the name denoting God's mercy.[8] The Catholic Church never used the name Yahweh in liturgical texts or bibles before Vatican II, after which it began to see limited use in the Jerusalem Bible and certain contemporary hymns. In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments directed that the word "Lord" and its equivalent in other languages be used instead.[42] In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI ordered the Pontifical Biblical Commission to investigate whether the use of the name Yahweh was offensive to Jewish groups, and in 2008 the Vatican recommended against the use of the word in new bibles and prohibited its continued use in vernacular worship.[43][44] In the King James Version and many older versions of the Modern Bible, the transliteration JHVH is translated as Jehovah in some places, but most modern English Bibles substitute "the LORD" or "GOD" for the tetragrammaton,[45] although the Sacred Name Movement, active since the 1930s, promotes the use of the name Yahweh in Bible translations and in liturgy.[46]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Dijkstra 2001, p. 92.
  2. ^ Dever 2003, p. 128.
  3. ^ a b Grabbe 2010, p. 184.
  4. ^ a b Hackett, Jo Ann (2001). "'There Was No King In Israel': The era of the Judges". In Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195139372. 
  5. ^ a b Wyatt, Nicolas (2010). "Royal Religion in Ancient Judah". In Stavrakopoulou, Francesca; Barton, John. Religious diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0567032164. 
  6. ^ Mills, Watson, ed. (31 Dec 1999). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Reprint ed.). Mercer University Press. p. 494. ISBN 978-0865543737. 
  7. ^ a b c d Betz, Arnold Gottfried (2000). "Monotheism". In Freedman, David Noel; Myer, Allen C. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 9053565035. 
  8. ^ a b c Sommer 2011, p. 298–299.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Miller, Patrick D (2000). The Religion of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0664221454. 
  10. ^ Prickett & Barnes 1991, p. 10.
  11. ^ Chalmers 2012, p. no pagination.
  12. ^ Smith 2001, p. 276, fn 71.
  13. ^ Rose, M. (1992). Names of God in the OT. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 4, p. 1004). New York: Doubleday
  14. ^ Rainey, Anson. "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?" Biblical Archeology Review 34:6. Nov/Dec, 2008.
  15. ^ DDD (1999:911).
  16. ^ Gnuse 1997, p. 31.
  17. ^ Dever 2003, p. 228.
  18. ^ a b Smith 2002, p. 33.
  19. ^ Day 2002, p. 32.
  20. ^ Smith 2002, p. 33–34.
  21. ^ a b c Ackerman, Susan (2003). "Goddesses". In Richard, Suzanne. Near Eastern Archaeology:A Reader. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-1575060835. 
  22. ^ a b Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Fortress Press (1998)
  23. ^ a b c d Smith, Mark S (2001b). The Origins of Biblical Monotheism : Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195134803. 
  24. ^ Steven L. McKenzie, Deuteronomistic History, The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 2, Doubleday (1992), pp. 160–168
  25. ^ a b Dever, William G. (2005), Did God Have A Wife?: Archaeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 5, ISBN 978-0802828521 
  26. ^ Albertz, Rainer (1994). A History of Israelite Religion, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy. Westminster John Knox Press. p.19
  27. ^ Jacques Berlinerblau, Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel.
  28. ^ Gnuse, Robert Karl (1997). No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. Continuum. ISBN 978-0567374158. 
  29. ^ a b Noll, K.L. Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction. 2001: Sheffield Academic Press. p. 248. 
  30. ^ Day, John (2002). Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Continuum. p. 143. ISBN 978-0826468307. 
  31. ^ Edelman, Diana Vikander (1996). The triumph of Elohim: from Yahwisms to Judaisms. William B. Eerdmans. p. 58. ISBN 978-0802841612. 
  32. ^ The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period, p. 779 by William David Davies, Louis Finkelstein, Steven T. Katz, 2006: "(BT Kidd 7ia) The historical picture described above is probably wrong because the Divine Names were a priestly ... Name was one of the climaxes of the Sacred Service: it was entrusted exclusively to the High Priest once a year on the "
  33. ^ Mishneh Torah Maimonides, Laws of Prayer and Priestly Blessings, Chapter 14; http://www.chabad.org/dailystudy/rambam.asp?tDate=3/28/2012&rambamChapters=3
  34. ^ Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, ISBN 0-684-86912-8
  35. ^ Thomas L. Thompson, Salma Khadra Jayyusi Jerusalem in ancient history and tradition T.& T.Clark Ltd; illustrated edition edition (1 April 2004) ISBN 978-0567083609 p. 139 "THE+HEBREW+GODDESS" in The Hebrew Goddess
  36. ^ William G. Dever, "Did God Have a Wife?" (Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-2852-3,2005)
  37. ^ Robert Gnuse, "The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: A Survey of Recent Scholarship" Religion (Vol. 29, Issue 4, October 1999, Pages 315-336)
  38. ^ Betz 2000, p. 917.
  39. ^ McDonald 2007, p. 20-28.
  40. ^ Philip Schaff. "LORD". New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. VII: Liutprand - Moralities. p. 21. 
  41. ^ Archibald Thomas Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament – Romans 10". 
  42. ^ Liturgiam authenticam
  43. ^ Roxanne King (October 15, 2008). "http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/ID/761/No-". Denver Catholic Register. Archdiocese of Denver. Retrieved November 3, 2013. 
  44. ^ "CNS STORY: No 'Yahweh' in songs, prayers at Catholic Masses, Vatican rules". Retrieved 29 July 2009. 
  45. ^ English Standard Version Translation Oversight Committee Preface to the English Standard Version Quote: "When the vowels of the word adonai are placed with the consonants of YHWH, this results in the familiar word Jehovah that was used in some earlier English Bible translations. As is common among English translations today, the ESV usually renders the personal name of God (YHWH) with the word Lord (printed in small capitals)."
  46. ^ Ernest S. Frerichs. The Bible and Bibles in America. Society of Biblical Literature (January 1, 1988) ISBN 9781555400965.