- This article is about the national god of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For the Jewish view of God, see God in Judaism. For other uses, see Yahweh (disambiguation). See also: Tetragrammaton.
|Deities of the ancient Near East|
|Religions of the ancient Near East|
|Part of a series on|
Yahweh (//, or often // in English; Hebrew: יהוה) is the national god of the ancient kingdoms of Israel (Samaria) and Judah. His origins are mysterious, 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, Yahweh 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
Yahweh was the national god of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and appears to have been worshipped only in these two kingdoms. This was unusual in the Ancient Near East but not unknown–the god Ashur, for example, was worshipped only by the Assyrians. His origins are mysterious: his name may be a shortened form of a cultic formula relating to 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), but the 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. Knauf and others propose a North Arabian etymology, linking the name to the Semitic root hwy, which would yield the meaning "he blows" appropriate to a weather divinity, and suit the indications in the Tanakh of Yahweh's southern origins.
There is considerable support—though not universal—for the view that the Egyptian inscriptions do refer to Yahweh. The question that arises is 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 (this is called the Kenite hypothesis, after one of the groups involved). The strength of the Kenite 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; but while it is highly plausible that the Kenites, Midianites and others may have introduced Israel to Yahweh, 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 (c.1200–1000 BCE): 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. Recent scholarship suggests the Israelite community arose peacefully and internally in the highlands of Palestine—in the words of archaeologist William Dever, "most of those who came to call themselves Israelites … were or had been indigenous Canaanites"[Notes 2]—and that Israelite religion accordingly emerged gradually from a Canaanite milieu.
El, not Yahweh, was the original "God of Israel"—the word "Israel" is based on the name El rather than Yahweh. He was the chief of the Canaanite gods, 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, from where he presided over the Assembly of the Gods with the goddess Asherah as his consort. The pair made up the top tier of the Canaanite pantheon; the second tier was made up of their children, the "seventy sons of Athirat" (another name of Asherah). 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. 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. 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. Yahweh, the southern warrior-god, joined the pantheon headed by El and in time he and El were identified, with El's name becoming a generic term for "god". Each member of the divine council 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 3]
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 (1000–586 BCE): Yahweh as God of Israel
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 God's viceroy on Earth, reflected each year in Jerusalem 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
Israelite monotheism was the culmination of a unique set of historical circumstances. Pre-exilic Israel, like its neighbours, was polytheistic, and Yahweh and El merged at religious centres such as Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem, the national god appropriating many of the older supreme god's titles such as Shaddai (Almighty) and Elyon (Most High). Asherah, formerly the wife of El, was probably 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 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. Baal and Yahweh coexisted in the early period of Israel's history, but were considered irreconcilable after the 9th century BCE, thanks largely to the efforts of King Ahab and his queen Jezebel to elevate Baal to the status of national god.
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 process by which this came about might be described as follows: 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; finally, in the national crisis of the exile, the very existence of other gods was denied.
- Ancient Semitic religion
- Canaanite religion
- God in Abrahamic religions
- Historicity of the Bible
- History of ancient Israel and Judah
- Names of God in Judaism
- Qos (deity)
- Second Temple Judaism
- Sacred Name Movement
- For further details of this unique image of Yahweh, see Edelman, 1995, page 190.
- "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.139–140 and also chapter 4.
- Edelman 1995, p. 190.
- Miller 1986, p. 110.
- Miller 2000, p. 1.
- Dijkstra 2001, p. 92.
- Dever 2003b, p. 128.
- Hackett 2001, p. 158–159.
- Smith 2002, p. 72.
- Wyatt 2010, p. 69–70.
- Betz 2000, p. 917.
- Grabbe 2010, p. 184.
- Noll 2001, p. 251.
- Miller 2002, p. 2.
- Freedman, O'Connor & Ringgren 1986, p. 520.
- Grabbe 2007, p. 151.
- Bert Dicou, Edom, Israel's Brother and Antagonist: The Role of Edom in Biblical Prophecy and Story, A&C Black, 1994 pp.167-181, p.177.
- James S. Anderson, Monotheism and Yahweh's Appropriation of Baal, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015 p.101.
- Grabbe 2007, p. 153.
- Van der Toorn 1999, p. 912.
- Van der Toorn 1999, p. 912–913.
- Van der Toorn 1995, p. 247–248.
- Noll 2001, p. 124–126.
- Gnuse 1997, p. 31.
- Dever 2003, p. 228.
- Cook 2004, p. 7.
- Smith 2002, p. 32.
- Coogan & Smith 2012, p. 8.
- Smith 2002, p. 33.
- Hess 2007, p. 103.
- Coogan & Smith 2012, p. 7–8.
- Handy 1994, p. 101.
- Hackett 2001, p. 158-159.
- Hackett 2001, p. 160.
- Schniedewind 2013, p. 93.
- Smith 2010, p. 119.
- Hackett 2001, p. 156.
- Davies 2010, p. 112.
- Miller 2000, p. 90.
- Petersen 1998, p. 23.
- Albertz 1994, p. 89.
- Gorman 2000, p. 458.
- Davies & Rogerson 2005, p. 151–152.
- Gnuse 1997, p. 118.
- Davies & Rogerson 2005, p. 158–165.
- Cohen 1999, p. 302.
- Dever 2003a, p. 388.
- Bennett 2002, p. 83.
- Mettinger 2006, p. 288-290.
- MacDonald 2007, p. 21,26-27.
- Gnuse 2006, p. 129.
- Albertz 1994, p. 61.
- Smith 2001, p. 140.
- Smith 2002, p. 47.
- Ackerman 2003, p. 395.
- Day 2002, p. 143.
- Ackerman, Susan (2003). "Goddesses". In Richard, Suzanne. Near Eastern Archaeology:A Reader. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-1-57506-083-5.
- Ahlstrom, Gosta W. (1991). "The Role of Archaeological and Literary Remains in Reconstructing Israel's History". In Edelman, Diana Vikander. The Fabric of History: Text, Artifact and Israel's Past. A&C Black.
- Albertz, Rainer (1994). A History of Israelite Religion, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy. Westminster John Knox.
- Allen, Spencer L. (2015). The Splintered Divine: A Study of Istar, Baal, and Yahweh Divine Names and Divine Multiplicity in the Ancient Near East. Walter de Gruyter.
- Becking, Bob (2001). "The Gods in Whom They Trusted". In Becking, Bob. Only One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. A&C Black.
- Bennett, Harold V. (2002). Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel. Eerdmans.
- Betz, Arnold Gottfried (2000). "Monotheism". In Freedman, David Noel; Myer, Allen C. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 9053565035.
- Chalmers, Aaron (2012). Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel: Prophet, Priest, Sage and People. SPCK.
- Cohen, Shaye J.D. (1999). "The Temple and the Synagogue". In Finkelstein, Louis; Davies, W. D.; Horbury, William. The Cambridge History of Judaism: Volume 3, The Early Roman Period. Cambridge University Press.
- Cohn, Norman (2001). Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. Yale University Press.
- Collins, John J. (2005). The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age. Eerdmans.
- Coogan, Michael D.; Smith, Mark S. (2012). Stories from Ancient Canaan (2nd Edition). Presbyterian Publishing Corp. ISBN 9053565035.
- Cook, Stephen L. (2004). The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism. Society of Biblical Literature.
- Darby, Erin (2014). Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines: Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual. Mohr Siebeck.
- Davies, Philip R.; Rogerson, John (2005). The Old Testament World. Westminster John Knox.
- Davies, Philip R. (2010). "Urban Religion and Rural Religion". In Stavrakopoulou, Francesca; Barton, John. Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. Continuum International Publishing Group.
- Day, John (2002). Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Continuum.
- Dever, William G. (2003a). "Religion and Cult in the Levant". In Richard, Suzanne. Near Eastern Archaeology:A Reader. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-1-57506-083-5.
- Dever, William G. (2003b). Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From. Eerdmans.
- Dever, William G. (2005). Did God Have A Wife?: Archaeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-2852-1.
- Dijkstra, Meindert (2001). "El the God of Israel-Israel the People of YHWH: On the Origins of Ancient Israelite Yahwism". In Becking, Bob; Dijkstra, Meindert; Korpel, Marjo C.A.; et al. Only One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. A&C Black.
- Edelman, Diana V. (1995). "Tracking Observance of the Aniconic Tradition". In Edelman, Diana Vikander. The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms. Peeters Publishers. ISBN 9053565035.
- Elior, Rachel (2006). "Early Forms of Jewish Mysticism". In Katz, Steven T. The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Cambridge University Press.
- Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher (2002). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster.
- Freedman, D.N.; O'Connor, M.P.; Ringgren, H. (1986). "YHWH". In Botterweck, G.J.; Ringgren, H. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 5. Eerdmans.
- Frerichs, Ernest S. (1998). The Bible and Bibles in America. Scholars Press.
- Gnuse, Robert Karl (1997). No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. Continuum.
- Gnuse, Robert (1999). "The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: A Survey of Recent Scholarship". Religion 29: 315–336. doi:10.1006/reli.1999.0198.
- Gorman, Frank H., Jr. (2000). "Feasts, Festivals". In Freedman, David Noel; Myers, Allen C. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 978-1-57506-083-5.
- Grabbe, Lester (2010). "'Many nations will be joined to YHWH in that day': The question of YHWH outside Judah". In Stavrakopoulou, Francesca; Barton, John. Religious diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-567-03216-4.
- Grabbe, Lester (2007). Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?. A&C Black.
- 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 978-0-19-513937-2.
- Halpern, Baruch; Adams, Matthew J. (2009). From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies. Mohr Siebeck.
- Handy, Lowell K. (1995). Among the Host of Heaven: The Syro-Palestinian Pantheon as Bureaucracy. Eisenbrauns.
- Hess, Richard S. (2007). Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. Baker Academic.
- Humphries, W. Lee (1990). "God, Names of". In Mills, Watson E.; Bullard, Roger Aubrey. Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press.
- Keel, Othmar (1997). The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms. Eisenbrauns.
- Lemche, Niels Peter (1998). The Israelites in History and Tradition. Westminster John Knox Press.
- Levin, Christoph (2013). Re-Reading the Scriptures: Essays on the Literary History of the Old Testament. Mohr Siebeck.
- Liverani, Mario (2014). Israel's History and the History of Israel. Routledge. ISBN 978-1317488934.
- Mafico, Temba L.J. (1992). "The Divine Name Yahweh Alohim from an African Perspective". In Segovia, Fernando F.; Tolbert, Mary Ann. Reading from this Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective 2. Fortress Press.
- Mastin, B.A. (2005). "Yahweh's Asherah, Inclusive Monotheism and the Question of Dating". In Day, John. In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel. Bloomsbury.
- Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. (2006). "A Conversation With My Critics: Cultic Image or Aniconism in the First Temple?". In Amit, Yaira; Naʼaman, Nadav. Essays on Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context. Eisenbrauns.
- Meyers, Carol (2001). "Kinship and Kingship: The early Monarchy". In Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-513937-2.
- MacDonald, Nathan (2007). "Aniconism in the Old Testament". In Gordon, R.P. The God of Israel. Cambridge University Press.
- Miller, Patrick D (2000). The Religion of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-22145-4.
- Miller, Patrick D (1986). A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Westminster John Knox Press.
- Moore, Megan Bishop; Kelle, Brad E. (2011). Biblical History and Israel's Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History. Eerdmans.
- Niehr, Herbert (1995). "The Rise of YHWH in Judahite and Israelite Religion". In Edelman, Diana Vikander. The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms. Peeters Publishers. ISBN 9053565035.
- Noll, K.L. (2001). Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction. A&C Black.
- Petersen, Allan Rosengren (1998). The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit?. A&C Black.
- Schniedewind, William M. (2013). A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period. Yale University Press.
- Smith, Mark S. (2000). "El". In Freedman, David Noel; Myer, Allen C. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Eerdmans.
- Smith, Mark S. (2001). The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press.
- Smith, Mark S. (2002). The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Eerdmans.
- Smith, Mark S. (2003). "Astral Religion and the Divinity". In Noegel, Scott; Walker, Joel. Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World. Penn State Press.
- Smith, Mark S. (2010). God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Eerdmans.
- Smith, Morton (1984). "Jewish Religious Life in the Persian Period". In Finkelstein, Louis. The Cambridge History of Judaism: Volume 1, Introduction: The Persian Period. Cambridge University Press.
- Sommer, Benjamin D. (2011). "God, names of". In Berlin, Adele; Grossman, Maxine L. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press.
- Van der Toorn, Karel (1995). "Ritual Resistance and Self-Assertion". In Platvoet, Jan. G.; Van der Toorn, Karel. Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour. BRILL.
- Van der Toorn, Karel (1999). "Yahweh". In Van der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; Van der Horst, Pieter Willem. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Eerdmans.
- Van der Toorn, Karel (1996). Family Religion in Babylonia, Ugarit and Israel: Continuity and Changes in the Forms of Religious Life. BRILL.
- Wright, J. Edward (2002). The Early History of Heaven. Oxford University Press.
- 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 978-0-567-03216-4.