Yahwism was the religion of the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel (Samaria), centered around the Israelite deity Yahweh. Yahweh was one of many gods and goddesses of the pantheon of gods of the Land of Canaan, the southern portion of which would later come to be called the Land of Israel. Yahwism existed parallel to Canaanite polytheism, and in turn was the monolatristic, primitive predecessor stage of modern Judaism, in its evolution into a monotheistic religion.
Despite modern Judaism and Yahwism both being the veneration of Yahweh, there are clear distinctions between the two belief systems. Unlike the religions that would descend from it, Yahwism was characterized by henotheism/monolatrism, which recognized Yahweh as the national god of Israel, but nevertheless did not explicitly deny the existence of other gods of ancient Semitic religion, such as Baal, Asherah, and Astarte — though this did not always allow their individual worship in conjunction to Yahweh.
The exact transition between what is now considered monolatristic Yahwism and monotheistic Judaism is somewhat unclear, however it is evident that the event began with radical religious amendments such as the testaments of Elijah and the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah and had been fulfilled by the end of the Babylonian captivity, where the recognition of Yahweh as the sole god of the universe had finally secured a majority of the Jewish people.
The centre 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. The name "Israel" is based on that of El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, suggesting that El rather than Yahweh was the original chief god of Israel. While some scholars believe that the worship of Yahweh pre-dated the formation of the kingdoms and worked as a unifying factor assisting their emergence, none of the Old Testament patriarchs, the tribes of Israel, the Judges, or the earliest monarchs have a Yahwistic name.
The prevalent opinion among scholars is that the Israelites were native to Canaan and indistinguishable from the Canaanites in language and religion. It is unclear how, where, or why Yahweh appeared; even his name is a point of confusion. The exact date of this occurrence is also ambiguous: the term Israel first enters historical records in the 13th century BCE with the Merneptah Stele, and while the worship of Yahweh is circumstantially attested to as early as the 12th century BCE, there is no attestation or record of even Yahweh's name, let alone his origin or character, until more than five-hundred years later, with the Mesha Stele (9th century BCE). The Kenite hypothesis postulates that, citing several Biblical passages, Yahweh may have been a Midianite or Kenite deity who, in a manner analogous to the interaction of Moses and Jethro, was introduced to the Israelites and carried north to the lands they inhabited. Regardless, the Israelites emerged as an "independent" community from the Canaanites when Yahweh was given worship above all gods. This did not, however, preclude the veneration of other deities, as it is clearly shown that Yahweh was worshiped alongside and in conjunction with a number of other gods. This theme is present both in and out of the biblical accounts of the era, but with noticeable differences. While the Bible indeed records the worship of Yahweh alongside other deities, it not only describes this as concluded heresy, which according to most scholars it clearly was not considered at that time, but also neglects to reflect this tradition in eras before the settings described. The Bible's accounts of the formative stages of Judaism records that Yahweh originated under the aegides of Abraham, Moses, etc., thus leaving out historical accounts, leading the only records regarding this non-monotheistic worship of Yahweh confined solely to the era of the prophets such as Elijah, when Yahwism (i.e., versus Judaism) was on decline. In any event, Yahweh was worshiped alongside other Canaanite deities for several centuries, although none were truly elevated to his position. In the Iron Age, Yahweh was the national god of the Israelite kingdoms. In the early tribal period, each tribe would have had its own patron god; however when kingship emerged, the state promoted Yahweh as the national god of Israel, supreme over the other gods.
Pre-exilic Israel, like its neighbours, was polytheistic, and Israelite monotheism was the result of unique historical circumstances. During an era of religious syncretism, it became accepted among the Israelite people to consider the Canaanite god El as the same as Yahweh. This is arguably the beginning of the end for Yahwism and the very beginnings of Judaism. Indeed, as this idea became prevalent in the Jewish people's religion, El soon was thought to have always been the same deity as Yahweh, as evidenced by Exodus 6:2–3, which reads:
|1||And God (Elohim) spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: "I am Yahweh.||way·ḏab·bêr ’Ĕ·lō·hîm ’el-Mō·šeh; way·yō·mer ’ê·lāw ’ă·nî Yah·weh.||וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.|
|2||And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai),||wā·’ê·rā, ’el-’Aḇ·rā·hām ’el-Yiṣ·ḥāq wə·’el-Ya·‘ă·qōḇ bə·’Ĕl Šad·dāy,||וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי;|
|3||but by My name Yahweh I made Me not known to them."||ū·šə·mî Yah·weh, lō nō·w·ḏa‘·tî lā·hem.||וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.|
After the 9th century BCE the tribes and chiefdoms of Iron Age I were replaced by ethnic nation states. In each kingdom, the king was also the head of the national religion and thus the viceroy on Earth of the national god. In Jerusalem this was reflected each year when the king presided over a ceremony at which Yahweh was enthroned in the Holy Temple. 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, vow-making, private rituals, and the adjudication of legal disputes.
The fall of Yahwism and birth of Judaism drew even closer, with prophets signalling an era of new ideals and practices. Reforms made by the Hebrew kings Hezekiah and Josiah worked to abolish worship of any god but Yahweh, but their reforms were often reversed by their successors who favored the monolatristic Yahwism that was common.
The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with Elijah in the 9th century BCE, and at the latest with 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 early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as being monolatrists rather than true monotheists, as instead of believing that Yahweh was the only god in existence, they instead believed that he was the only god the people of Israel should worship, a noticeable departure from the traditional beliefs of the Israelites, nonetheless. It was during the national crisis of the exile that the followers of Yahweh went a step further and finally outright denied that the other deities aside from Yahweh even existed, thus marking the transition from monolatrism to true monotheism, and from Yahwism to Judaism. Certain scholars date the start of widespread monotheism to 8th century BCE, and view it as a response to Neo-Assyrian aggression.
Beliefs and practices
Yahwism is distinguished from Judaism most clearly by its pantheonic characteristics. Whereas in Judaism, and indeed all modern Abrahamic religions, Yahweh is the sole God of the universe, in Yahwism, Yahweh, as the national deity, is simply the sole God to be worshipped by the Israelite people. Yahwism is characterized by a lack of definitive, explicit denial of the existence of other deities alongside Yahweh, a precept still preserved in certain areas of the Hebrew Bible. The existence of other gods alongside Yahweh was generally understood by the Israelites, and often lead to a number of deities being worshipped in conjunction to him.
The deity most commonly worshiped alongside Yahweh was Asherah, venerated as Yahweh's consort or mother. In the Canaanite pantheon, Asherah was El's consort. While other gods, such as Baal, were commonly worshiped alongside Yahweh, this wasn't always consistent practice, as Baal for example saw true prominence only in the time of Elijah and never again thereafter. Various biblical passages indicate that statues of Asherah were kept in his temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria. Outside of Israel, Yahweh also appropriated the Egyptian goddess Anat as a consort, as 5th century BCE records from the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt account that a goddess "Anat-Yahu" was worshiped in the settlement's temple to Yahweh. A goddess called the "Queen of Heaven", probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, possibly a title of Asherah, was also worshiped.
Though Yahweh was understood to occupy a pantheon which included many other deities, his status as the national god still enshrined him with an utmost supremacy, any attempts to "replace" or usurp Yahweh's place in the Israelite faith was considered antithetical. For instance, 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, although the cult of Baal did continue for some time.
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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, with 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 represented prior to the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah late in the monarchic period: to quote one recent study, "early aniconism, de facto or otherwise, is purely a projection of the post-exilic imagination".
Practices of Yahwism are largely characteristic of other Semitic religions of the time. Such practices that were preserved in Judaism were festivals, sacrifices, vow-making, private rituals, and the adjudication of legal disputes. Prayer itself played little role in official worship.
Animal sacrifices played a big role in Yahwism and Judaism (prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) on altars, 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. Some scholars have concluded that the rituals detailed in Leviticus 1–16, with their stress on purity and atonement, were actually followed only after the Babylonian exile and the Yahwism/Judaism transition, and that in reality any head of a family was able to offer sacrifice as occasion demanded.
In addition to the sacrificial priests, a great role in Yahwism, and still later Judaism, were played by prophets and epic heroes, reflected in the modern Jewish texts by legends about Samson, Elijah, and Joshua. Worship was performed on literal high places, with the Jerusalem Temple sitting on Mount Moriah/Mount Zion (hence, the Temple Mount), and the Samaritans' temple sitting on Mount Gerizim, although this may just be more of a coincidence than an intentional practice. 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 where they became popular, and potentially even human sacrifice.
The center 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 Yahwism, 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.
Later amendments to Yahwistic practice are difficult to qualify, as there is an unclear scholarly consensus on what explicitly connotes Judaism vs. Yahwism during the generally accepted "transition period" of the Babylonian captivity. According to Biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann, “The exile is the watershed. With the exile, the religion of Israel comes to an end and Judaism begins.” It is believed the fall of Babylon to the Achaemenid Persians allowed the Israelites to become acquainted with practitioners of Zoroastrianism, and later carried back to Israel newfound interpretations of messianism, dualistic cosmology, and the afterlife, among other things; however, the implications of these newfound developments are more appropriately classified as precepts of Second Temple Judaism rather than Yahwism.
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