A perennial problem for the study of ancient Israelite religion is the origins of Yahwism. Review and evaluate the key issues and modern scholarly proposals in this arena, and then, with this evaluative review as a backdrop, lay out and defend your own position.
Yahweh does not occur in any West-Semitic pantheon outside of Israel, despite claims to the contrary. Supposed references to ‘Yaw’ and ‘Ya’ at Ebla and Ugarit have turned out to be illusory.
Furthermore, P and JE sources don’t use the name Yahweh until Moses’ call, suggesting that Yahweh wasn’t always the god of Israel.
“And God said to Moses, ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadday. But my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned’.” (Ex 6:2-4 P)
“God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “Yahweh, the god of your ancestors, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sent me to you. This is my name forever. And this is my title for generation to generation.”(Ex 3:15 JE)
Determining the origins of Yahwism involves two questions:
1) Where did the cult of Yahweh originate geographically and temporally?
2) What is the etymology of Yahweh and what was his earliest function?
The Origin of Yahweh’s CultEdit
The cult of Yahweh originated somewhere in the Negev or Northern Arabian Peninsula before the 14th century b.c.e.
Two 14-13th century b.c.e. Egyptian topographical lists refer to a place called “land of the Shashu Bedouin: Yhw3.” One of these inscriptions associates this location with a place called “Sˤrr,” perhaps Seˤir in the Northern Arabian Peninsula. Yhw3 could be named after Yahweh or vice-versa.
Similarly, several archaic Hebrew poems locate Yahweh’s theophany in the south, near Edom/Seir:
“Yahweh came from Sinai. He dawned from Seir. He shone forth from Mt. Paran” (Deut 33:2).
“O Yahweh, when you went forth from Seir, when you marched from the Field of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured. Indeed, the clouds poured water” (Jud 5:4).
Other sources do the same:
“God comes from Teman, and the Holy One from Mt. Paran.” (Hab 3:3)
The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions refer to “Yahweh of Teman.”
Many scholars have argued that the Kenites/Midianites—perhaps under the aegis of Moses’ father-in-law—introduced Yahwism to Israel. This is known as the ‘Kenite hypothesis’. Evidence for the Kenite hypothesis includes:
Moses father-in-law is referred to as ‘a priest of Midian’ in Ex 2:16, 3:1, 18:1.
Jud 1:16 refers to Moses’ father-in-law as a Kenite.
Moses’ father-in-law is depicted as the source of several Israelite legislative institutions in Ex 18:13-26.
The Kenites are depicted as nomadic pastoralists, like the Shashu Bedouin mentioned in the Egyptian topographical lists.
There are some problems with this proposal, however. The ‘classic’ version of the Kenite hypothesis assumes the historicity of Moses and the Exodus tradition as presented in the Biblical text. It does not take Israel’s probable Canaanite origins into account.
Furthermore, the exact relationship between the Kenites and the Midianites is unclear and the nature of Midianite religion is enigmatic.
David Schloen gets around the first problem through a clever reading of Judges 5. He argues that Judges 5 depicts cooperation between Israel and Midian as part of long distance caravan trade in the Transjordan. The Midianites operated the caravans and the Israelites acted as local middlemen and guards. According to this scheme, the Israelites adopted Yahweh-worship as a result of contact with the Midianites within the borders of Israel.
“If Yahwism did indeed originate with Midianites or Kenites—southern traders—then its spread through the highlands of Canaan (and Transjordan) may have been along the caravan routes from the south and east.” (36)
The distribution of the so-called Midianite pottery—pottery originating from Qurrayah in the northern Arabian peninsula—supports Schloen’s hypothesis. However, nothing connects the Midianites and the ‘Midianite’ pottery other than geographic proximity.
Another, less fraught possibility is to suggest that Shoshu Bedouin from the area of Edom joined the early Israelite movement and introduced Yahweh to the Israelite coalition.
Meaning of Yahweh and his RoleEdit
Most scholars treat Yahweh as a 3ms causative prefix conjugation form of √HWY, meaning either ‘to be’ (as in Hebrew and Aramaic) or ‘to fall’ (as in Arabic)
Thus, Yahweh means ‘he who creates’ or ‘he who drops’
Cross suggests that Yahweh is a shortened form of the epithet ḏū yahwī ṣabaˀōt ‘the one who creates the armies’—itself an epithet of El—on the basis of several Old South Arabian theonymns (e.g. Ḏū Shara). This derivation fits Yahweh’s apparent Arabian origins.
Albright, Dijkstra, and De Moor each offer similar derivations, which also connect Yahweh with El.
This epithet must have been shortened to just Yahweh by the 13th or 14th century, if the Egyptian topographical lists mentioned above refer to Yahweh
These proposals assume that Yahweh was originally a manifestation of El. Naturally, one can cite many parallels between Yahweh and El (e.g., both live in a tent, both had a consort named Asherah), but the earliest material suggests a distinction between the two.
Several Archaic poems depict Yahweh as a militant storm god. Like Ugaritic Baal, he is the ‘rider on the clouds’ (rōkēb bā-ˤărābôt cf. Ugaritic rkb ˤrpt) (Ps 68:5) and his theophany is accompanied by thunder, rain, and lightning (Jud 5:4-5; Ps 68:7-9). El, by contrast, is neither a warrior nor a storm god.
Further LXX Deuteronomy 32:8-9 suggests a distinction between Elyon, a common epithet of El, and Yahweh:
When the Most High apportioned nations, when he divided humanity, he fixed the boundaries of peoples according to the number of gods. Indeed, the portion of Yahweh was his people. Jacob his allotted share.
Perhaps, as Mark Smith has suggested, Yahweh absorbed many of El’s traits over time through a process of convergence.
Deriving Yahweh from a longer epithet is unnecessary. Grammatically, Yahweh can mean ‘he who creates’ or ‘he who drops’ by itself (compare the Old South Arabian theonymn Yaghuṯ ‘he helps’). Given his origin as a storm god, Yahweh presumably means ‘the one who causes (rain) to fall’
The name Yahweh could come from an Arabian language, since HWY only means to ‘fall’ in Arabic. This would provide further evidence for Yahweh’s North Arabian origin. But Adam Strich has shown that the root √HYY could mean ‘to fall’ in Biblical Hebrew, so it isn’t strictly necessary to derive Yahweh from an Arabian language
Cross, Frank Moore. “Reuben, First-Born of Jacob.” Zeitshcrift für alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 100, Supplement (1988): 46-65.
Schloen, J. David. “Caravans, Kenites, and Casus belli: Enmity and Alliance in the Song of Deborah.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 (1993): 18-38.
Smith, Mark. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Dearborn, mi: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Stager, Lawrence E. “Forging an Indentity: The Emergence of Anient Israel.” In The Oxford History of the Biblical World, edited by Michael D. Coogan, 90-131. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
van der Toorn, Karel. “Yahweh.” In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 910-919. 2nd ed. Leiden: Brill, 1999.