For several years I’ve simply accepted the idea that Yahweh was originally a Canaanite storm god. While this still may be true, there’s now a competing theory that he was, instead, a god of volcanism and metallurgy. That would make him like the smith gods Hephaestus (Greek) or Vulcan (Roman). This has me thinking about how ideas change and grow, and the impact they can have on history along the way.
Here’s what the main proponent of this alternate understanding has to say, according to Ancient History Encyclopedia:
Scholar Nissim Amzallag, of Ben-Gurion University, disagrees with the claim that Yahweh’s origins are obscure and argues that the deity was originally a god of the forge and patron of metallurgists during the Bronze Age (c. 3500–1200 BCE). Amzallag specifically cites the ancient copper mines of the Timna Valley (in southern Israel), biblical and extra-biblical passages, and similarities of Yahweh to gods of metallurgy in other cultures for support.
The idea here is that he was venerated in a region known for its copper mines, a valuable resource in the Bronze Age, and thus he could well have been the god of the forge. Some passages of the Bible lend a certain credence to this theory.
Poetic metaphors throughout the Bible describe Yahweh as a fiery deity who makes the mountains smoke (Psalms 144:5) and melts them down (Isaiah 63:19b), just like smelters melt down ore to obtain copper and other metals, the researcher notes. In fact, in Psalm 18:18 Yahweh is depicted as anthropomorphized furnace: “smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.”
To ancient people, the process of melting down rocks to extract metal would have “appeared completely preternatural and required a divine explanation,” Amzallag told Haaretz.
Yahweh’s metallurgical attributes were also on display in the pillar of fire and smoke by which he guides the Hebrews in the desert (Exodus 13:21) and the cloud that accompanies his visits to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9–10), a simpler version of the Tabernacle in which Moses speaks face to face with God.
While those references are interesting, there is an abundance of other verses that portray Yahweh as in control of the weather, as well as the source of fertility for the land.
“The theory is interesting but I don’t think there is enough evidence to say that the first worshippers of Yahweh were metallurgists,” says Thomas Romer, a world-renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and a professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. There is strong evidence connecting the Israelites and the Edomites, and maybe the latter worshipped Yahweh as well, says Romer, author of “The Invention of God,” a book about the history of Yahweh and the biblical text.
However, Romer disagrees with Amzallag’s interpretation of the supposed volcanic phenomena described in the Bible. He thinks they are more indicative of a god of storms and fertility, similar to the Canaanite god Baal.
“It is quite common for storm gods in antiquity to make the mountains tremble, but is this really an allusion to volcanism or is it just showing the power of the god?” Romer says.
A few verses that appear to back this up are the following, although there are certainly more that use this kind of language:
“I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:4 NRSV)
“He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” (Psalm 135:7 NRSV)
“He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.” (Psalm 147:8 NRSV)
“They do not say in their hearts, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.’” (Jeremiah 5:24 NRSV)
Despite that,the idea of Yahweh as a god of the forge isn’t quite dead yet. Ancient History Encyclopedia quotes Nissim Amzallag:
The god of metallurgy generally appears as an outstanding deity. He is generally involved in the creation of the world and/or the creation of humans. The overwhelming importance of the god of metallurgy reflects the central role played by the copper smelters in the emergence of civilizations throughout the ancient world. (397)
While reading about this I thought about the way Yahweh is described in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it occured to me that he is also strongly associated at points with the sea. This is particularly true with regard to his primordial creation of/conflict with Leviathan, a great sea monster.
“There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” (Psalm 104:26 NRSV)
“You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” (Psalm 74:14 NRSV)
“On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1 NRSV)
It turns out, there are some interesting parallels with the Greek and Roman gods of metallurgy, Hephaestus and Vulcan. These two are so similar that they can be considered largely the same deity. The Romans certainly made use of the myths around the Greek form of this god as either the basis of or reinforcement for their own deity. With that in mind, I was fascinated to discover that Hephaestus/Vulcan has a strong association with the sea. In fact, he was raised in it.
As the son of Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Juno, the queen of the gods, Vulcan should have been quite handsome, but baby Vulcan was small and ugly with a red, bawling face. Juno was so horrified that she hurled the tiny baby off the top of Mount Olympus.
Vulcan fell down for a day and a night, landing in the sea. Unfortunately, one of his legs broke as he hit the water, and never developed properly. Vulcan sank to the depths of the ocean, where the sea-nymph Thetis found him and took him to her underwater grotto, wanting to raise him as her own son.
Vulcan had a happy childhood with dolphins as his playmates and pearls as his toys. Late in his childhood, he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.
Vulcan carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell, took it back to his underwater grotto, and made a fire with it. On the first day after that, Vulcan stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, he discovered that when he made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones sweated iron, silver or gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metal into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields. Vulcan made pearl-handled knives and spoons for his foster mother, and for himself he made a silver chariot with bridles so that seahorses could transport him quickly. He even made slave-girls of gold to wait on him and do his bidding.
That’s all well and good for Hephaestus/Vulcan, but could there be any sort of connect to Yahweh? Possibly. Check out this hypothesis on the origins of Vulcan, taken from Wikipedia:
The origin of the Roman god of fire Vulcan has been traced back to the Cretan god Velchanos by Gérard Capdeville, primarily under the suggestion of the close similarity of their names. Cretan Velchanos is a young god of Mediterranean or Near Eastern origin who has mastership of fire and is the companion of the Great Goddess. These traits are preserved in Latium only in his sons Cacus, Caeculus, Romulus and Servius Tullius. At Praeneste the uncles of Caeculus are known as Digiti, noun that connects them to the Cretan Dactyli.[incomprehensible]
This god came along far later than Yahweh, being described just a few years before the beginning of the Common Era. However, his ‘mastership of fire’ and the possibility that he is of ‘Near Eastern origin’ at least calls for our attention.
His theology would be reflected in the Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and in those concerning the childhood of Zeus on Mount Ida. The Mediterranean Pregreek conception is apparent in the depiction of Velchanos as a young man sitting upon a fork of a tree on coins from Phaistos dating from 322 to 300 BC, showing him as a god of vegetation and springtime: the tree is the symbol of the union of Heaven and Earth and their generative power, i. e. the site of the union of the god and the goddess. Otherwise Earth would be symbolised in the tree and Heaven in the double axe of the god.
Note how he was portrayed as ‘a god of vegetation and springtime.’ Along with fire, this connection to the fertility of the land sounds just a bit more like Yahweh. The existence of a goddess to whom he was bound in some way has a parallel in Yahweh and his queen consort, Asherah. That, of course, was later redacted out of the biblical text and revised to have him calling for the destruction of her shrines. Talk about a bad breakup!
The theological profile of Velchanos looks identical to that of Jupiter Dolichenus, a god of primarily Hittite ascendence in his identification with the bull, who has Sumero-Accadic, Aramaic and Hittito-Hurrite features as a god of tempest, according for example to the researches conducted in Syria by French scholar Paul Merlat. His cult enjoyed a period of popularity in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries and the god had a temple in Rome on the Aventine.
While Velchanos likely came along after Yahweh, I can’t shake the idea that they shared origins. Gods and goddesses are, after all, ideas that we carry around in our minds, share, rethink, and share some more. Perhaps Velchanos, and by extension Hephaestus and Vulcan, have Yahweh as their forgotten source. Or, maybe all four have an even earlier point of origin. It’s also possible that I’m reading far too much into this, and should leave it to more scholarly minds than my own.
Although the biblical narratives depict Yahweh as the sole creator god, lord of the universe, and god of the Israelites especially, initially he seems to have been Canaanite in origin and subordinate to the supreme god El. Canaanite inscriptions mention a lesser god Yahweh and even the biblical Book of Deuteronomy stipulates that “the Most High, El, gave to the nations their inheritance” and that “Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob and his allotted heritage” (32:8–9). A passage like this reflects the early beliefs of the Canaanites and Israelites in polytheism or, more accurately, henotheism (the belief in many gods with a focus on a single supreme deity). The claim that Israel always only acknowledged one god is a later belief cast back on the early days of Israel’s development in Canaan.
This reference to Deuteronomy makes me wonder, given that it’s likely the last book of what became the Pentateuch to be composed and edited. It could be that they were drawing on older language, or that this portion was written before Yahweh became considered chief of the gods by ancient Israelites and was later incorporated into the text. Even so, the presence of other, extra-biblical sources making El chief and putting Yahweh as subordinate is enough to satisfy me.
It’s an odd story, this one about Yahweh. A god that so many believe they know so well, but whose true ancient origins are obscured by distance in time and scant primary sources attesting to when, where, and why he was first worshipped. I’m inclined to accept the Bronze Age origin of Yahweh as a god of smithies, but given the limited information available I hold that loosely. What a thought, that a relatively minor deity associated with mining and metallurgy could become the focus of worship for over 3.6 billion people in the world, represented by the Abrahamic tradition. Filtered through the lens of myths about matriarchs and patriarchs, various legal codes, the pleadings of prophets, and the legend of Jesus, he has become something far different than he was to begin with, whether he had dominion over storms, forges, or both. One could argue, poetically and metaphorically, that the present world of hate and hope is being forged in his fires.