Yahweh was the national god of Ancient Israel. His origins reach at least to the early Iron Age and likely to the Late Bronze Age. In the oldest biblical literature he is a storm-and-warrior deity who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies; at that time the Israelites worshipped him alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, Asherah and Baal, but in later centuries El and Yahweh became conflated and El-linked epithets such as El Shaddai came to be applied to Yahweh alone, and other gods and goddesses such as Baal and Asherah were absorbed into the Yahwistic religion.
|Deities of the ancient Near East|
|Religions of the ancient Near East|
Towards the end of the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE), the very existence of foreign gods was denied, and Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the one true God of all the world. During the Second Temple period, speaking the name of Yahweh in public became regarded as taboo. Jews began to substitute the divine name with the word adonai (אֲדֹנָי), meaning "Lord", and after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the original pronunciation was forgotten. Outside Judaism, Yahweh was frequently invoked in Graeco-Roman magical texts from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE under the names Iao, Adonai, Sabaoth, and Eloai.
Late Bronze Age origins (1550–1150 BCE)
In the earliest Biblical literature Yahweh is 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 to do battle with the enemies of his people Israel:
There is none like God, O Jeshurun [a name for Israel]
who rides through the heavens to your help and the clouds in His majesty.
“The eternal God is a hiding place, and underneath are the everlasting arms; and He drove out the enemy from you, and said, ‘Destroy!’
so Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob's abode ...
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
and you shall tread on their backs".
There is almost no agreement on the origins of this god. His name is not attested other than among the Israelites and seems not to have any plausible etymology, ehyeh ašer ehyeh ("I Am that I Am"), the explanation presented in Exodus 3:14, appearing to be a late theological gloss invented at a time when the original meaning had been forgotten. One scholarly theory is that 'Yahweh' is a shortened form of the phrase ˀel ḏū yahwī ṣabaˀôt, "El who creates the hosts", but the argument has numerous weaknesses, including, among others, the dissimilar characters of the two gods El and Yahweh, Yahweh's association with the storm (an association never made for El), and the fact that el dū yahwī ṣaba'ôt is nowhere attested either inside or outside the Bible. The oldest plausible occurrence of his name is in the phrase "Shasu of yhw" in an Egyptian inscription from the time of Amenhotep III (1402–1363 BCE), the Shasu being nomads from Midian and Edom in northern Arabia. The current consensus is therefore that Yahweh was a "divine warrior from the southern region associated with Seir, Edom, Paran and Teman".
There is considerable although not universal support for this view, but it raises the question of how Yahweh made his way to the north. An answer many scholars consider plausible is the Kenite hypothesis, which holds that traders brought Yahweh to Israel along the caravan routes between Egypt and Canaan. This 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 its major weaknesses are that the majority of Israelites were firmly rooted in Palestine, and the fact that the historical role of Moses is highly problematic. It follows that if the Kenite hypothesis is to be maintained then it must be assumed that the Israelites encountered Yahweh (and the Midianites/Kenites) inside Israel and through their association with the earliest political leaders of Israel.
Iron Age I (1150-586 BCE): Yahweh as an Iron Age national god
Contrary to the traditional picture of the Israelites entering Palestine from outside its borders, the current model is that they developed from the native Canaanite population, and that Israelite religion was accordingly much closer to that of the Canaanites than the Bible suggests. The Israelites initially worshiped Yahweh alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, head of the Canaanite pantheon, (he, not Yahweh, was the original "God of Israel"—the word "Israel" is based on the name El rather than Yahweh), Asherah, who was El's consort, and major Canaanite deities such as Baal. El and his seventy sons, who included Baal and Yahweh, made up the Assembly of the Gods, each member of which had a human nation under his care; a textual variant of Deuteronomy describes Yahweh received Israel when El divided the nations of the world among his sons, and incidentally suggests that El and Yahweh were not identified as the same god in this early period:
Between the Judges and the first half of the monarchy El and Yahweh and other gods merged in a process of religious syncretism; 'el (Hebrew: אל) became a generic term meaning "god", as opposed to the name of a specific god, and epithets such as El Shaddai came to be applied to Yahweh alone, diminishing the position of El and strengthening the position of Yahweh, while features of Baal, El, and Asherah were absorbed into Yahweh. In the next stage the Yahwistic religion separated itself from its Canaanite heritage, first by rejecting Baal-worship in the 9th century, then with prophetic condemnation of Baal, the asherim, sun-worship, worship on the "high places", practices pertaining to the dead, and other matters.
The 9th century BCE saw the emergence of nation-states in Syria-Palestine, including Israel, Judah, Philistia, Moab and Ammon, each with its national god. 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). This development occurred first in the kingdom of Israel (Samaria), and then in Judah, the southern kingdom, where king Jehoshephat was a strong ally of the Omride dynasty of the northern kingdom. In each kingdom the king was also the head of the national religion and thus the viceroy on Earth of the national god, and when Judah became an Assyrian vassal-state after the destruction of Israel, the relationship between the king and dynastic god Yahweh came to be thought of in terms of Assyrian vassal treaties.
The Bible retains traces of this worship of multiple gods both in the region and in Israel. In this atmosphere a struggle emerged between those who believed that Yahweh alone should be worshiped, and those who worshiped him within a larger group of gods. The Yahweh-alone party, the party of the prophets and Deuteronomists, ultimately triumphed, and their victory lies behind the biblical narrative of an Israel vacillating between periods of "following other gods" and periods of fidelity to Yahweh.
Exile and Second Temple (586 BCE-70 CE)
In 587/6 Jerusalem fell to the Neo-Babylonians, the Temple was destroyed, and the leadership of the community were deported. The next 50 years, the Babylonian exile, were of pivotal importance to the history of Israelite religion, but in 539 BCE Babylon in turn fell to the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great, the exiles were given permission to return (although only a minority did so), and by about 500 BCE the Temple was rebuilt. The period between the destruction of the Temple and Cyrus's edict permitting the return is called the Exilic period, and the subsequent period the post-Exilic period (divided between Persian and Hellenistic eras).
Towards the end of the Second Temple period, speaking the name of Yahweh in public became regarded as taboo. When reading from the scriptures, Jews began to substitute the divine name with the word adonai (אֲדֹנָי), meaning "Lord". The High Priest of Israel was permitted to speak the name once in the Temple during the Day of Atonement, but at no other time and in no other place. During the Hellenistic period, the scriptures were translated into Greek by the Jews of the Egyptian diaspora. Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures render both the tetragrammaton and adonai as kyrios (κύριος), meaning "the Lord". After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the original pronunciation of the tetragrammaton was forgotten.
The period of Persian rule saw the development of expectation in a future human king who would rule purified Israel as Yahweh's representative at the end of time—a messiah. The first to mention this were Haggai and Zechariah, both prophets of the early Persian period. They saw the messiah in Zerubbabel, a descendant of the House of David who seemed, briefly, to be about to re-establish the ancient royal line, or in Zerubbabel and the first High Priest, Joshua (Zechariah writes of two messiahs, one royal and the other priestly). These early hopes were dashed (Zerubabbel disappeared from the historical record, although the High Priests continued to be descended from Joshua), and thereafter there are merely general references to a Messiah of David (i.e. a descendant). From these ideas, Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, and Islam would later emerge.
Yahweh and the bible
In recent decades, it has become increasingly common among scholars to assume that much of the Hebrew Bible was assembled, revised and edited in the 5th century BCE to reflect the realities and challenges of the Persian era. The returnees had a particular interest in the history of Israel: the written Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), for example, may have existed in various forms during the Monarchy (the period of the Kingdom of Israel and, later the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah), but it was in the Second Temple that it was edited and revised into something like its current form, and the Chronicles, a new history written at this time, reflects the concerns of the Persian Yehud in its almost-exclusive focus on Judah and the Temple.
Prophetic works were also of particular interest to the Persian-era authors, with some works being composed at this time (the last ten chapters of Isaiah and the books of Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and perhaps Joel) and the older prophets edited and reinterpreted. The corpus of Wisdom books saw the composition of Job, parts of Proverbs, and possibly Ecclesiastes, while the book of Psalms was possibly given its modern shape and division into five parts at this time (although the collection continued to be revised and expanded well into Hellenistic and even Roman times).
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 Biblical Mount 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 BCE 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
The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with the prophet 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 Babylonian exile and early post-exilic period. The early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as being monolatrists rather than true monotheists; they did not believe Yahweh was the only god in existence, but instead believed he was the only god the people of Israel should worship. Finally, in the national crisis of the exile, the followers of Yahweh went a step further and outright denied that the other deities aside from Yahweh even existed, thus marking the transition from monolatrism to true monotheism.
Yahweh is frequently invoked in Graeco-Roman magical texts dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE, most notably in the Greek Magical Papyri, under the names Iao, Adonai, Sabaoth, and Eloai. In these texts, he is often mentioned alongside traditional Graeco-Roman deities and Egyptian deities. The archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Ouriel and Jewish cultural heroes such as Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are also invoked frequently. The frequent occurrence of Yahweh's name was likely due to Greek and Roman folk magicians seeking to make their spells more powerful through the invocation of a prestigious foreign deity.
A piece of coinage issued by Pompey to celebrate his successful conquest of Judaea showed a kneeling, bearded figure grasping a branch subtitled BACCHIVS IVDAEVS or "The Jewish Bacchus", which has been interpreted as depicting Yahweh as a local variety of Dionysus. Similarly, Tacitus, John the Lydian, Cornelius Labeo, and Marcus Terentius Varro all identify Yahweh with the Greek god Dionysus. Jews themselves frequently used symbols that were also associated with Dionysus such as kylixes, amphorae, leaves of ivy, and clusters of grapes, a similarity Plutarch used to argue that Jews worshipped a hypostasized form of Bacchus-Dionysus. In his Quaestiones Convivales, Plutarch further notes that the Jews hail their god with cries of "Euoi" and "Sabi", phrases associated with the worship of Dionysus. According to Sean M. McDonough, Greek speakers may have confused Aramaic words such as Sabbath, Alleluia, or even possibly some variant of the name Yahweh itself for more familiar terms associated with Dionysus.
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