- 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
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Yahweh (//, or often // in English; Hebrew: יהוה) was the national god of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. His origins are debated but there is widespread acceptance that he did not originate with Israel. His name may have begun as an epithet of El, head of the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon, but the earliest plausible references to it 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 became the main god of the northern Kingdom of Israel and patron of its royal dynasty. 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. 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.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Yahweh and the gods of Canaan
- 3 Yahwism in Israel (Samaria) and Judah, c.930–580 BCE
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
Yahweh appears to have been unique to the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He may have originated 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 beside the earthly armies of Israel), but although El and Yahweh have much in common they also have many differences. The more probable explanation is that Yahweh originated as a storm-god from regions south of Israel and Judah. 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 YHW refers to the name Yahweh.
If Yahweh originated in the deserts south of Israel, the question that arises is how he made his way to the north. A widely accepted hypothesis (called the Kenite hypothesis, after one of the groups involved) is that traders brought Yahweh to Israel along the caravan routes between Egypt and Canaan. 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.
Yahweh and the gods of Canaan
Scholars agree that the Israelite community arose peacefully and internally in the highlands of Canaan–in the words of archaeologist William Dever, "most of those who came to call themselves Israelites … were or had been indigenous Canaanites"–[Notes 1] 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 2]
Yahwism in Israel (Samaria) and Judah, c.930–580 BCE
Yahweh as national god (God 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 Cannanite city-state system was ending. 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. 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 Moloch, the god of the Ammonites.
According to the Hebrew Bible 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 and Israel. Since the 1980s scholars have reassessed this picture and now believe that a significant northern kingdom emerged only in the 9th century BCE, while Judah emerged as a state only in the 8th.
Israel was as one of a number of regional kingdoms which crystallised along the trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia at the close of the Bronze Age, all of which seem to have adopted a national god. The gods came to represent their nations, and stood more or less equal to each other–Chemosh, for example, represented Moab just as Yahweh represented Israel. The idea that the worship of Yahweh as national god played a key role in the formation of the monarchic state remains common among scholars, but the evidence is in fact slender—for example, none of the patriarchs, tribes, or early kings has a name based on Yahweh. We do not know what god the earliest kings worshiped, but from the mid-9th century the court cult in Israel (meaning the northern kingdom) was definitely linked to Yahweh, and same applied to Judah from the time of king Jehoshaphat, a close ally of the king of Israel.
It was in Samaria that Yahweh had the title "God of Israel"–no "God of Judah" is mentioned anywhere in the Bible– and 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.
The emergence of the monarchic state involved the concentration of power through kingship. The king used national religion to exert his authority, and as head of the state was also the head of the national religion and God's viceroy on Earth.
Worship (temples, sacrifice, etc)
The Hebrew Bible gives the impression that the temple in Jerusalem 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, at Arad in the Negev, and at Beersheba (both in the territory of Judah); the evidence of the Biblical texts indicates further that Shiloh, Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah and Dan were major sites for festivals, sacrifices, making of vows, private rituals and the adjudication of legal disputes.
Several peoples in ancient Syria and Palestine, including some Israelites, had cults focused on standing stones rather than on an image of their god, and it is probable that the earliest Yahweh-worshipers followed this tradition. The practice of worshiping standing stones was addressed in Leviticus 26: "Ye shall make you no idols, neither shall ye rear you up a graven image, or a pillar, neither shall ye place any figured stone in your land, to bow down unto it." The direct reference to the practice makes it likely that it was initially widespread in Israel. Later practice was mixed: the temple at Arad had standing stones, but the temple in Jerusalem famously had a throne in the form of two cherubim, their inner wings forming the seat and a box (the Ark of the Covenant) as a footstool. According to Deuteronomy 10:1-5 and 1 Kings 8:9,21 this contained the Tablets of the Law, but the two stones may have been standing-stones representing Yahweh and Asherah. The northern kingdom, following the Canaanite El tradition, may have worshiped Yahweh in the form of a bull.
Each year the king presided over a ceremony in which Yahweh was enthroned in the Temple, and the centre of his 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 became linked to events in the national myth 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.
Yahweh's 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 on occasions varying from royal and public to communal and personal, but again the details are scant. Prayer played little role in official worship.
Everything in the moral realm was understood in 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.
Relationship to other gods and goddesses
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.
Yahweh and El merged at religious centres such as Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem, and the priesthood of Yahweh inherited the religious lore of El. Yahweh appropriated many of the older supreme god's titles such as El Shaddai 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. 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.
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. Evidence increasingly suggests Asherah, formerly the wife of El, was 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.
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, 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) 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. The archaeological record documents widespread polytheism in and around Israel during the period of the monarchy.
Traditional scholarship distinguished "orthodox Yahwism"–the worship of Yahweh alone by the elite–from heterodox popular and family religion, but there was in fact no authority deciding what was orthodox and what was not, and Yahweh was probably only one among many objects of veneration. Orthodox or "normative" Yahwism did not exist in either Israel or Judah for most of the monarchical period.
Scholars agree that Israelite monotheism was the culmination of a unique set of historical circumstances. Pre-exilic Israel, like its neighbours, was polytheistic; 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 (with the brief exception of a period of royal support under Josiah), 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; the Israelite state, when kingship emerged, promoted Yahweh as the "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
- Sacred Name Movement
- the seven names of God
- 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. – 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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