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A drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud, apparently showing the god YHW (Yahweh) as a bearded man seated on a winged and wheeled throne.[1]
This article is about the national god of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For other uses, see Yahweh (disambiguation). See also: Tetragrammaton, Jehovah, and God in Abrahamic religions

Yahweh[Notes 1] (/ˈjɑːhw/, or often /ˈjɑːw/ in English; Hebrew: יהוה‎), was the national god of Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and Judah,[2] and his worship appears to have been unique to those two kingdoms.[3] His origins are debated but there is widespread acceptance that he did not originate with Israel;[4] his name may have begun as an epithet of El, head of the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon,[5] but the earliest plausible references to it place him among the nomads of the southern Transjordan.[6]

In the oldest biblical literature Yahweh is a typical ancient Near Eastern "divine warrior" who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies.[7] He became the main god of the northern Kingdom of Israel and patron of its royal dynasty.[8] 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.[9][10] 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.[10]

By early post-biblical times, the name of Yahweh had virtually ceased to be pronounced and it was replaced when reading scripture with the word Adonai, meaning Lord.[11] Many Christian Bibles follow the Jewish custom and replace it with "the LORD".


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.

Two theories have been proposed to explain the origin of Yahweh: the first is that his name was at first 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 beside the earthly armies of Israel); the alternative is that El and Yahweh were originally separate gods who merged gradually.[12] Support for the first hypothesis comes from the fact that Yahweh and El share many features; evidence for the second includes, among many other points, the fact that although El and Yahweh have much in common they also have many differences, and that while El's home was in the north, Yahweh's is always described as being in the south.[12]

Further support for the southern hypothesis comes from Egyptian inscriptions that mention a "land of the Shasu Yahu", the Shasu being nomads from the region of Midian and Edom and Yahu (or more accurately, YHW) a place name; there is considerable acceptance among scholars that this refers to the name Yahweh and that the god's worship did not originate with Israel.[13] If Yahweh originated in regions south of Israel, the question that arises is how he made his way to the north.[14] A widely accepted hypothesis (called the Kenite hypothesis, after one of the groups involved, along with Rechabites, Gibeonites—related to the Edomites—and Midianites) is that traders brought Yahweh to Israel along the caravan routes between Egypt and Palestine.[15] The strength of this hypothesis is the way 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.[16]

Yahweh and the gods of Canaan[edit]

Scholars agree that the Israelite community arose peacefully and internally in the highlands of Canaan[17]—in the words of archaeologist William Dever, "most of those who came to call themselves Israelites … were or had been indigenous Canaanites"[18]—and Israelite religion emerged gradually from a Canaanite milieu.[19] The chief of the gods was El, described as "the kind, the compassionate," "the creator of creatures"; he lived in a tent on a mountain, from whose base originated all the fresh waters of the world, and there he presided over the Assembly of the Gods.[20] The goddess Asherah was his consort, and the two made up the top tier of the pantheon.[21] The second tier was made up of their children, the divine assembly of the "seventy sons of Athirat" (another name of Asherah).[22] Prominent in this group was Baal, with his home on Mount Zaphon; he gradually became the dominant deity, so that El became the executive power and Baal the military power in the cosmos.[23] His sphere was the thunderstorm with its life-giving rains, so that he was also a fertility god, although not quite the fertility god.[24] The third tier was made up of comparatively minor craftsman and trader deities, and the fourth and final tier of divine messengers and the like.[22]

El, not Yahweh, was the original "God of Israel"–the word "Israel" is based on the name El rather than Yahweh, the names of the oldest characters in the Torah show reverence towards El rather than Yahweh, and when Yahweh reveals his name to Moses in the episode of the burning bush he also reveals that he has been El all along.[25] 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 Cannanite city-state system was ending.[26] By the 9th century BCE a new system of nation-states was forming (Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon and others), marked by, among other things, the emergence of national gods.[27] What distinguished Israel from other emerging Iron Age Canaanite societies was its elevation of Yahweh as the national god, rather than, for example, Chemosh, the god of Moab, or Milcom, the god of the Ammonites.[28]

A significant biblical text in this regard is Deuteronomy 32:8–9, in which the sons of El, including Yahweh, each receives his own nation:[25]

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]

This suggests a memory of Yahweh, the southern warrior-god, joining the Canaanite pantheon headed by El; in time El and Yahweh were identified (there are no biblical polemics against El, whose name became a generic term for "god"), while Yahweh and Baal initially co-existed and later competed with each other.[21]

Yahwism in Israel (Samaria) and Judah, c.930–580 BCE[edit]

Yahweh and state religion[edit]

The Hebrew Bible tells how Israel began in the 10th century as a united kingdom ruled by David and his son Solomon before splitting into the two separate states of Judah in the south and Israel in the north.[29] Since the 1980s scholars have reassessed this picture and now believe that a significant kingdom emerged only in the 9th century, and in the north, while Judah emerged as a state only in the 8th century BCE.[30][31] The idea that the worship of Yahweh as a national god played a key role in state-formation remains common among scholars, although some have cautioned that the evidence is in fact slender—for example, none of the patriarchs, tribes, or early kings has a name based on Yahweh.[32]

Israel (the northern kingdom) probably began with Omri, who built his capital at Samaria, and it was in Samaria that Yahweh had the title "God of Israel"–no "God of Judah" is mentioned anywhere in the Bible.[33] The name "Israel" appears to have taken on an ideological role in Judah after the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in c.720 BCE, with Judah cast as the "true" Israel, and the story of Jeroboam's secession may have involved the rejection of Yahweh as royal god.[34]

Monarchic state systems involve the concentration of power through kingship rather than kinship, although kinship (family) remains important and retains many of its functions over daily and family life.[35] The king used national religion to exert his authority,[10] and as head of the state was also the head of the national religion and God's viceroy on Earth.[36]

Worship (temples, sacrifice, etc)[edit]

The Hebrew Bible gives the impression that the temple in Jerusalem was intended as the most important or even sole temple of Yahweh, but this was not the case.[37] The earliest known Israelite place of worship is a 12th century open-air altar in the Samariaian hills featuring a bronze bull reminiscent of Canaanite "Bull-El."[38] Temples dating from the monarchical period have been excavated at Dan on Israel's northern border, at Arad in the Negev, and at Beersheba (both in the territory of Judah).[38] Finds associated with them included altars, lamps, figurines, and a pair of standing stones which perhaps represented Yahweh and Asherah.[38]

The Jewish liturgical year contains three major festivals, all coinciding with major events in rural life, Passover with the birthing of lambs, Shavuot with the cereal harvest, and Sukkot with the fruit harvest.[37] All became linked to the invented national history of Israel, Passover to deliverance from Egypt, Shavuot to the lawgiving at Sinai, and Sukkot to the wilderness wanderings.[37]

Relationship to other gods and goddesses[edit]

The Hebrew Bible provides evidence that many gods other than Yahweh were worshiped in Israel and Judah–for example, when King Josiah reformed Jerusalem's religious practice in the late 7th century, places of worship for other gods around Jerusalem had to be destroyed, priests had to be stopped from burning incense to Baal and the sun and moon and the "host of heaven," and Yahweh's own temple had to be purged of Baal, Asherah, the Host of Heaven, the chariots of the sun, and more.[39]

Yahweh and El merged at religious centres such as Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem, and the priesthood of Yahweh inherited the religious lore of El.[40] Yahweh appropriated many of the older supreme god's titles such as El Shaddai (El of the Mountains) and El Elyon (El Almighty), but Yahwism did not absorb the bull-cult associated with El, and the rejection of the golden calf of Aaron and the bulls of Jeroboam was fundamental to the Israelite self-understanding as expressed in the biblical scriptures.

Yahweh's appearances as a storm god owe much to Canaanite depictions of Baal.[41] Baal and Yahweh coexisted in the early period of Israel's history, but from the 9th century they were considered irreconcilable, probably as a result of the attempts of King Ahab and Jezebel, his Phoenician queen, to elevate him in the northern kingdom.[42]

Goddesses worshiped in Israel and Judah included Asherah, Astarte, and a deity called the Queen of Heaven, who was probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.[43] Evidence increasingly suggests Asherah, formerly the wife of El, was worshiped as as Yahweh's consort, and various biblical passages indicate that her statues were kept in his temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria.[43] 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 records from the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt.[44]

There is evidence also of the worship of further gods and goddesses from the Canaanite pantheon, such as the "Queen of Heaven" mentioned in Jeremiah who might be Astarte (also known as Ishtar,[45] 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 monarchical period (1 Kings 18, Jeremiah 2)[46][47] 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.[48] The archaeological record documents widespread polytheism in and around Israel during the period of the monarchy.[46]

Iron Age polytheism and montheism[edit]

"Monotheism" and polytheism" are modern terms and modern concepts, and do not adequately capture the complexity of Iron Age belief.[49] [50] Canaanite (meaning pre-Iron Age) belief was built around the concept of the "divine family", while Iron Age Israelite belief stressed instead the "divine council"; when Yahweh absorbed El the other deities were de-emphasised, Yahweh's supremacy over the pantheon was stressed, and the imagery switched to "divine council". The Biblical rhetoric which emerged from this process was not "pure" monotheism in the modern sense but a statement of Israel's special relationship with Yahweh.[51]

The emergence of Yahweh-centred monotheism in ancient Israel is now seen as a late and gradual phenomenon, passing through several stages of development between the emergence of Israel in the 10th century BCE and the end of the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century before consistent monotheism became the norm in the Babylonian Exile or even later.

[10] 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.[52]

Patrick D. Miller has distinguished between orthodox, heterodox, and syncretistic Yahwism.[53]

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.[54]

In the early centuries Yahweh-sanctuaries were erected in various places where devotion to Yahweh was expressed by means of sacrifice, festival meals and celebrations, prayer, and praise. Alongside these minor sanctuaries were the major state-sponsored sanctuaries, at Bethel (near the southern border) and Dan (in the north) in the northern kingdom of Israel, and at Jerusalem in Judah, where 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.[55]

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.[56]

Heterodox Yahwism was 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 and figurines of various sorts (females, horses and riders, animals and birds, and the calves or bulls of the Northern Kingdom). Over time the "high places" as centers of worship seem to have moved from acceptable 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.[57]

Syncretistic Yahwism includes 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."[58]

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.[59]

The fifth century Elephantine papyri suggest that, "Even in exile and beyond, the veneration of a female deity endured."[60] 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".[61] The papyri describe the Jews as worshiping Anat-Yahu (or AnatYahu). Anat-Yahu is described as either the wife[44][62] of Yahweh or as a hypostatized aspect of Yahweh.[63]

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". [11] Some of the surviving Septuagint manuscripts from the first century BC later replaced the Tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, meaning "lord".[64][65] Among religious Jews, it is one of the seven names of God which must not be erased, and is the name denoting God's mercy.[11] 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.[66] 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.[67][68] 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,[69] although the Sacred Name Movement, active since the 1930s, promotes the use of the name Yahweh in Bible translations and in liturgy.[70]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In the Hebrew Bible this is written as יהוה (YHWH), without vowels; the original pronunciation was lost many centuries ago, but it was probably "Yahweh" – Miller, 2000, p.2
  2. ^ For the varying mss of this verse, see Smith, 2002, p.32 fn. 43.



  1. ^ Edelman 1995, p. 190.
  2. ^ Miller 1986, p. 110.
  3. ^ Grabbe 2010, p. 184.
  4. ^ Grabbe 2007, p. 153.
  5. ^ Dijkstra 2001, p. 92.
  6. ^ Dever 2003, p. 128.
  7. ^ Hackett 2001, p. 158–159.
  8. ^ Smith 2002, p. 72.
  9. ^ Wyatt 2010, p. 69–70.
  10. ^ a b c d Betz 2000, p. 917.
  11. ^ a b c Sommer 2011, p. 298–299.
  12. ^ a b Chalmers 2012, p. no pagination.
  13. ^ Grabbe 2007, p. 151,153.
  14. ^ Van Der Toorn 1999, p. 912.
  15. ^ Van Der Toorn 1999, p. 912-913.
  16. ^ Van Der Toorn 2010, p. 247-248.
  17. ^ Gnuse 1997, p. 31.
  18. ^ Dever 2003, p. 228.
  19. ^ Cook 2004, p. 7.
  20. ^ Coogan & Smith 2012, p. 8.
  21. ^ a b Smith 2002, p. 33.
  22. ^ a b Hess 2007, p. 103.
  23. ^ Coogan & Smith 2012, p. 7–8.
  24. ^ Handy 1994, p. 101.
  25. ^ a b Smith 2002, p. 32.
  26. ^ Noll 2001, p. 124–126.
  27. ^ Schniedewind 2013, p. 93.
  28. ^ Hackett 2001, p. 156.
  29. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 266.
  30. ^ Niehr 1995, p. 53.
  31. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 268.
  32. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 126–127.
  33. ^ Davies 2010, p. 107.
  34. ^ Wyatt 2010, p. 61, footnote 1.
  35. ^ Meyers 2001, p. 166–168.
  36. ^ Miller 2000, p. 90.
  37. ^ a b c Davies 2012, p. 112.
  38. ^ a b c Dever 2003a, p. 388.
  39. ^ Collins 2005, p. 101–102.
  40. ^ Smith 2001, p. 140.
  41. ^ Collins 2005, p. 101-102.
  42. ^ Smith 2002, p. 47.
  43. ^ a b Ackerman 2003, p. 395.
  44. ^ a b Day 2002, p. 143.
  45. ^ Dever 2005, p. 234.
  46. ^ a b & Keel 1998, p. not defined.
  47. ^ Smith 2001, p. not defined.
  48. ^ Smith 2001, p. 151–154.
  49. ^ Gnuse 2006, p. 655.
  50. ^ Gnuse 1999, p. abstract.
  51. ^ Gnuse 2006, p. 656.
  52. ^ McDonald 2007, p. 20-28.
  53. ^ Miller 2000, p. 46–62.
  54. ^ Miller 2000, p. 48.
  55. ^ Miller 2000, p. 48–50.
  56. ^ Miller 2000, p. 50–51.
  57. ^ Miller 2000, p. 52–56.
  58. ^ Miller 2000, p. 58–59.
  59. ^ Smith 2001, p. 193.
  60. ^ Gnuse 1997, p. 185.
  61. ^ Noll 2001, p. 248.
  62. ^ Niehr 1995, p. 58.
  63. ^ Ackerman 2003, p. 394.
  64. ^ Philip Schaff. "LORD". New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. VII: Liutprand – Moralities. p. 21. 
  65. ^ Archibald Thomas Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament – Romans 10". 
  66. ^ Liturgiam authenticam
  67. ^ Roxanne King (October 15, 2008). "http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/ID/761/No-". Denver Catholic Register. Archdiocese of Denver. Retrieved November 3, 2013. 
  68. ^ "CNS STORY: No 'Yahweh' in songs, prayers at Catholic Masses, Vatican rules". Retrieved 29 July 2009. 
  69. ^ 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)."
  70. ^ Ernest S. Frerichs. The Bible and Bibles in America. Society of Biblical Literature (January 1, 1988) ISBN 978-1-55540-096-5.