Joshua J. Mark by Joshua J. Mark
published on 22 October 2018 Model of Herod’s Renovation of the Temple of Jerusalem (by Berthold Werner)
Yahweh is the name of the state god of the ancient Kingdom of Israel and, later, the Kingdom of Judah. His name is composed of four Hebrew consonants (YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton) which the prophet Moses is said to have revealed to his people. As the name of the supreme being was considered too holy to be spoken, the consonants YHWH were used to remind one to say the word ‘adonai’ (lord) in place of the god’s name, a common practice throughout the Near East in which epithets were used in referencing a deity.
All of these stipulations and details were applied to the god later, however; it is unclear exactly when Yahweh was first worshipped, by whom, or how. Scholars J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes write:
The origins of Yahwism are hidden in mystery. Even the final edited form of Genesis — II Kings [in the Bible] presents diverse views on the matter. Thus Genesis 4:16, attributed by literary critics to the so-called `Yahwistic’ source, traces the worship of Yahweh back to the earliest days of the human race, while other passages trace the revelation and worship of Yahweh back to Moses [in the Book of Exodus]. (111)
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.
ALTHOUGH THE BIBLE PRESENTS YAHWEH AS THE GOD OF THE ISRAELITES, THERE ARE MANY PASSAGES WHICH MAKE CLEAR THAT THIS DEITY WAS ALSO WORSHIPPED BY OTHER PEOPLES IN CANAAN.
Although the Bible, and specifically the Book of Exodus, presents Yahweh as the god of the Israelites, there are many passages which make clear that this deity was also worshipped by other peoples in Canaan. Amzallag notes that the Edomites, Kenites, Moabites, and Midianites all worshipped Yahweh to one degree or another and that there is evidence the Edomites who operated the mines at Timnah converted an earlier Egyptian temple of Hathor to the worship of Yahweh.
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.
The meaning of the name `Yahweh’ has been interpreted as “He Who Makes That Which Has Been Made” or “He Brings into Existence Whatever Exists”, though other interpretations have been offered by many scholars. In the late middle ages, `Yahweh’ came to be changed to `Jehovah’ by Christian monks, a name commonly in use today.
The character and power of Yahweh were codified following the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BCE and the Hebrew scriptures were canonized during the Second Temple Period (c.515 BCE-70 CE) to include the concept of a messiah whom Yahweh would send to the Jewish people to lead and redeem them. Yahweh as the all-powerful creator, preserver, and redeemer of the universe was then later developed by the early Christians as their god who had sent his son Jesus as the promised messiah and Islam interpreted this same deity as Allah in their belief system.
Extra-biblical Mention of Yahweh
The oldest mention of Yahweh was long held to be the Moabite Stone (also known as the Mesha Stele) erected by King Mesha of Moab to celebrate his victory over Israel in c. 840 BCE. The inscription mentions how Mesha, after defeating the Israelites, “took the vessels of Yahweh to Kemosh” (the chief god of Moab), meaning the objects sacred to the worship of Yahweh in the temple, most likely the temple in Israel’s capital of Samaria (Kerrigan, 78–79).
The Moabite Stone was discovered in 1868 CE in modern-day Jordan and the find published in 1870 CE. As the first extra-biblical inscription found to mention Yahweh, much was made of the discovery as the stele reported the same event from the biblical narrative of II Kings 3 in which Mesha the Moabite rebels against Israel (though with the major difference of the stele claiming a Moabite victory and the Bible claiming Israel the winner). The way the Yahweh line was interpreted further supported the concept of Yahweh as the god of the Israelites alone since Mesha claims to have taken the Israelite god’s vessels as tribute to his own.
Mesha Stele — Moabite Stone
Mesha Stele — Moabite Karin Stone