- 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.
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Yahweh (//, or often // in English; Hebrew: יהוה) is the national god of the ancient kingdoms of Israel 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 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.
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.
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 highly 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 worshiped 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 worshiped, 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, 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
- 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.
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