Picking at Threads, Part 4 – The Origins of Yahwism
Picking at Threads Part 1 covered what science has shown us about the origins of our universe, our planet and of the diverse life that lives here. Our Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and modern humans have lived here for about 200,000 years or so. This is obviously in direct contradiction with a literal reading of Genesis, thus the need for Biblical literalists and to attempt to discount such science as radiometric dating and the evidence for evolution by natural selection.
Part 2 briefly examined the religions of the Ancient Near East. There is certainly much more that could be said for them than what I was comfortable covering in a single blog post. Nonetheless I discussed some of the deities, myths, stories and legends of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and perhaps most importantly, the Canaanites. The Ancient Near East was a veritable melting pot and trading post of religious ideas, stories, gods, goddesses and mythical heroes, including some that are quite obvious parallels to accounts in the Bible, yet can be shown to have originated earlier.
Part 3 was our first look at the Bible, in particular, the authorship of the Torah or Pentateuch: the first 5 books of the Bible. The evidence does not point to Mosaic authorship, let alone a single author, but at least four authors writing at different periods, in different places and with different views of Yahweh, Israel, the priesthood, creation and many other details. It also exposes the all too human origins of this ancient, revered text, as well as indicating some of the means by which we can interpret other parts of the Bible.
A question then arises. If there were no Adam and Eve, if there is no evidence for the Flood, the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) or seemingly the Exodus, and if the Torah was written by Jewish men at periods ranging from 900 BC at the earliest to 500 BC, then where and when did the worship of the Judeo-Christian god Yahweh begin? Can this question even be answered to any degree and if so, how?
This was a very important question for me when I was searching for the answers to my beliefs, or rather former beliefs. When I sought out these answers, I was still assuming the existence and truth of the God of the Bible, Yahweh, and his son Jesus Christ. I wanted to know what history and archeology can tell us about the very beginnings of my religious belief. This article covers part of what I found.
How can an answer be found?
The Bible tells us that men have been speaking directly to God since the very beginning with Adam, Eve, the Patriarchs, Noah and Enoch. It also tells us Yahweh revealed himself to Moses during a significant event on Mount Sinai/Horeb after which he led the Israelites out of Egypt and promulgated the greatness of Yahweh to the people Israel. The problem with these stories is that they cannot be shown to be historic or even scientifically feasible.
But is there any truth in what the Bible says? Can it be used at all to answer questions such as the origins of the worship of Yahweh? The answer is “possibly”, but only if what the Bible says makes sense according to other evidence, such as the historical record, archeology and science.
Archeological evidence is unfortunately scant, but the intense interest in Biblical archeology has led to some very interesting discoveries, some of which pre-date the Torah itself and even lend some credence to elements in the Bible.
Specifically, other than the Genesis/Exodus myth, does the Bible say anything else about Yahweh’s origins? Seemingly, yes. Here I will examine two hypotheses that relate to the origins of the god Yahweh and the cult of his worship.
The Kenite Hypothesis
Biblical scholars have found that there are a handful of verses in the Old Testament that point to specific locations from whence Yahweh came. They are as follows:
Yahweh came from Sinai,
from Seir he dawned on us,
from Mount Paran blazed forth,
For them he came, after the mustering at Kedesh
from his zenith as far as the foothills. (Deuteronomy 33:2)
Eloah comes from Teman,
and the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His majesty covers the heavens,
and his glory fills the earth. (Habakkuk 3:3)
Yahweh, when you set out from Seir,
when you marched from the field of Edom,
the earth shook
the heavens pelted,
the clouds pelted down water.
The mountains melted before Yahweh of Sinai,
before Yahweh, God of Israel.
(The Song of Deborah, possibly one of the oldest passages in the Bible
Who is this coming from Edom,
from Bozrah in crimson garments,
so magnificently dressed,
marching so full of strength?
–It is I, whose word is saving justice,
whose power it is to save. (Isaiah 63:1)
There is a common thread here. Edom, Mount Paran, Sinai, Seir and Teman. All of these locations center around Edom and its surrounding area, located south of Israel. In these passages, Yahweh is depicted as coming out of these places, usually marching or “blazing forth”. These passages suggest a tradition that Yahweh has origins in this region.
Connecting to these verses is the story of Moses and his father-in-law Jethro/Reuel, a Midianite priest who is also described as a “Kenite”. Note that this is one place where the Torah sources differ. The Yahwist names this man Reuel in Exodus 2 and Numbers 10, while the Elohist names him Jethro in Exodus 3 and 18. It also seems he is named Hobab in Judges 4, which is possibly written by the Deuteronomist of the Documentary Hypothesis. The Yahwist says that Hobab is not Moses’ father-in-law, but rather his brother-in-law. So either the author of Judges was mistaken or was writing according to a different tradition.
In any case, the Jethro/Reuel character is interesting. First is the name Reuel. Any name that ends in -el is what is called theophoric. This means that the name of a god is embedded into the name. For example, many Egyptian pharaohs had theophoric names, such as Thutmoses (Thut), Rameses (Ra), Amenhotep (Amun). The Old Testament is rife with theophoric names, particularly those ending in “-iah” (for Yahweh) and “-el” (for El or God). This also usually points to a specific meaning for a name. In the case of Reuel, the meaning is “Friend of El” or “Friend of God”, depending on whether you translate “El” as a proper name or as a generic term for “God”.
As a point of interest, names in the Bible are often suspiciously appropriate for the character, often describing a deed for which they are known or the manner in which they died or other significant aspect of their character. When names are that suspiciously appropriate it certain raises the question of whether this could really have been the name of the character or even if the character really existed. In the case of Reuel, there is a suggestion that this person, by his very name, is a friend of God. This is a bit unusual for a Midianite in the wilderness south of Israel.
But back to the point at hand. Three things are specifically mentioned of Jethro/Reuel. One is that he is a Midianite priest. Another is that he is the father-in-law of the primary hero of all Judaism through the marriage of his daughter to Moses, quite an honor for a Midianite. The third is that he is a Kenite (a group that is seemingly part of the Midianites). That he is a priest in the narrative is of no doubt, but the big question is, for which god is he a priest? In my opinion, the evidence here is inconclusive but there is a fascinating possibility. Either Jethro was a pagan priest who immediately converted to Yahwism and offered sacrifices to Yahweh or he was already a priest of Yahweh. The relevant verses, Exodus 18:10-12, are not conclusive for either hypothesis. Some scholars interpret his calling upon the divine name and offering of sacrifices before Moses and Aaron ever did as evidence that he was already familiar with the process and in fact, demonstrating it to Aaron and Moses. The verse where Jethro says that “now I know that YHWH is greater than all the gods” is often seen as evidence for a conversion, but it can also be seen as Jethro being very pleased at the confirmation that a deity he already worships is, indeed, greater than the other gods. Place the emphasis on the word “know”: “now I know that YHWH is greater than all the gods”. In fact, this could be evidence that Jethro was both a pagan and a priest of Yahweh, where Yahweh was one of a number of gods and this evidence demonstrated to Jethro that Yahweh was the greatest among them. Or that the Midianites were already henotheists who acknowledged other gods, but whose primary god (Yahweh) was seen as above the rest.
If Jethro were not a priest of Yahweh, it would be somewhat suspicious that his conversion was so abrupt. For a lay person this wouldn’t be surprising, but for someone whose duty and livelihood as a priest was dependent on a particular deity, it would seem unusual for him to convert so quickly to Yahwism, especially when the evidence presented was, at the time, entirely anecdotal. Yet this would not be surprising if Jethro were a Yahwist already. The name “Reuel” would also be very strange for a pagan priest or at the very least. It stands to reason that anyone who is a “friend of El” or “friend of God” would already have to know of this god.
The hypothesis that Jethro was already a priest of Yahwe before any Israelite would lend very strong credence to Yahweh’s Midianite/Edomite origin. But even if he were not, it is still apparent that this region near the Arabah (Edom/Midian) is still very significant in the Hebrew tradition of the knowledge and worship of Yahweh.
There is yet another verse that is interesting in light of this:
You must not regard the Edomite as detestable, for he is your brother. (Deuteronomy 23:8)
Biblical tradition has it that the Edomites stemmed from Esau, Jacob/Israel’s brother, which means that Edom and Israel are literally cultural brothers. Could the reason for this etiological tale (written centuries later) be a means of explaining a brotherly relationship between Edom and Israel?
There is yet more compelling evidence in the story of Cain. I won’t go into the detail here, but I’ll link to a few articles explaining it. The basic idea is that the name “Cain” and the word “Kenite” are nearly identical in Hebrew. Again, names are not coincidences in the Bible and this is quite possibly an indicator that Cain was originally seen as an ancestor of the Kenites. Some scholars have even suggested that Kenites aren’t an ethnic group, but rather an occupational group of metalworkers, as the Genesis account of Cain would suggest.
Still another passage that may speak to the origin of Yahweh is one from 2 Samuel, where Yahweh speaks to Nathan about the “house of cedar” that David is considering building for Yahweh. In addition to having a link to older Canaanite religious traditions, I think this verse is another indicator of Yahweh’s southern origins:
Go and tell my servant David: Thus says Yahweh: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:5-6
This could be considered my own minor contribution to the Kenite hypothesis, as I have never seen it used as evidence (though that doesn’t mean it hasn’t, only not in the research I’ve seen. It’s also possible I’ve missed something.).
Here Yahweh is telling David he doesn’t really need to build a home for him and is fine with living in the tent and tabernacle. But he specifically says that he hasn’t “lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt”. This implies that Yahweh, at one point, “lived in a house”. In other words, someone had built a permanent temple for him. Furthermore, the last time Yahweh lived in this house was at the time of the Exodus.
But where could this house have been? I have yet to find any evidence of a house/temple built among the Edomites or Midianites and it seems dubious that the former temple of Hathor in Timnah could be it (we’ll get to that shortly). Perhaps this simply refers to Mount Sinai/Horeb/Paran in the very region the Kenite hypothesis suggests, or perhaps it is evidence of an earlier temple built for Yahweh by the original Yahwists in this region. In either case I find this to be a fascinating bit of evidence for the Kenite hypothesis.
The Biblical evidence is tantalizing, yet is it at all supported by anything outside the Bible itself? This is actually where I think the hypothesis gains the most ground.
The first and oldest piece of extra-biblical evidence, in fact the very oldest mention of the divine name Yahweh yet found by archaeologists, are Egyptian inscriptions that date from the reign of Amenhotep III (14th century BC) and Rameses II (13th century BC) that refer to a certain “Shasu of YHWH”, shasu being an Egyptian word for nomadic peoples that lived in the area of (you guessed it) Edom/Arabah.
Another dating from about the 9th century BC are pottery shards at Kuntillet Arjud, which speak of “Yahweh of Teman”, “Yahweh of Samaria” and also include the interesting phrase “and his Asherah”, which could have two possible meanings. Asherah can mean either an idol/statue or the Canaanite goddess Asherah being portrayed as Yahweh’s consort. Scholars generally consider the former to be the correct interpretation, but either is still possible and both are interesting and are the source of much debate in the scholarly community about its meaning. “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah”, even if it means idol/statue, still paints an image in contrast with the command forbidding the creation of graven images.
These shards seem to indicate a few different things. The first two are that Yahweh is associated with and perhaps has temples in both Teman and Samaria. Here we have a pretty solid indicator of association with a region of northern Israel, though given the time of dating it isn’t surprising. But we also have yet another solid association with Teman, the same geographical region south of Israel proposed by the Kenite hypothesis.
The Edomite god Qos
Finally, there is evidence related to the only other known god of Edom, Qos (or Qaus). The god Qos follows the Storm Deity motif common in the Ancient Near East. Storm gods were typically described with imagery related to storms, were praised for bringing rains and also performed double duty, serving also as the patron warrior deity, marching forth and aiding in conquering enemies. Other storm deities include Ba’al, Hadad, Jupiter and even Yahweh himself, as indicated by Psalm 29 and many other passages in the Old Testament.
Where did Yahweh acquire his storm deity properties and description? Among the possibilities are that Yahweh and Qos were, in fact, the same deity in Edom, simply known by two different names or possibly that YHWH is an epithet of Qos. It could be that the Bible itself attests to this by its total lack of polemic against the Edomite religion or Qos. The Bible holds nothing back in its ire for foreign gods, such as Chemosh, Ashur, Astarte, Dagon, Milcom/Molech, Tammuz and especially Ba’al. Yet the Edomite god is never mentioned, nor their religion described as an abomination. Perhaps this silence is indication, just as Deuteronomy 23:8, that the Edomites have a special relationship with Israel, or even that the god of the Edomites isn’t an abomination because he was Yahweh all along. In this case, Jethro could have been a priest of both Qos and Yahweh, whether or not they were the same god.
The Bronze Serpent
One last bit of evidence, one that I’ve not seen applied to the Kenite hypothesis, is the bronze snake spoken of in Numbers 21:4-9. In this Elohist (and thus older) source, Yahweh instructs Moses to craft a bronze snake that may be looked upon to cure snake bites. This same bronze snake is mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4 where it is called “Nehushtan” and is destroyed as an idol during this reform period.
In the Timnah Valley, a region in Edom, a mine complex was discovered that had been used by the Egyptians. In this area was also discovered a temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor that had been repurposed by Midianites there. References to Hathor were mostly removed or defaced (obviously there was enough left for archaeologists to deduce who the temple was originally devoted to). While there is no textual evidence of which deity the Midianites worshiped at this temple, there were two hints, one of which is very strong indeed. The first are copper rings along two walls that were exactly of the sort that held curtains which gave this temple a striking similarity to the Biblical Tabernacle. The second, more interesting find was none other than a bronze serpent. Perhaps the bronze serpent figures were used by many cultures during this primitive time and it wasn’t exclusive to Yahwism. Thus far there is no evidence of this. However, if this temple had originally been used by the Midianites to worship Yahweh, that would make sense of the rings and the serpent.
Overall, the Kenite hypothesis explains both Biblical and extra-Biblical evidence quite well regarding the time and location of Yahweh worship. The next question is, if he originated in Edom, how did he make his way into Israel? Perhaps because of a mundane explanation like trading and travelers. Or perhaps something more fascinating.
A Historical Exodus
It is a commonly held view among archaeologists and Old Testament scholars that the Exodus never happened. There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the story. This doesn’t mean it definitely never happened, only that we don’t have evidence to suggest that it did, which significantly lowers the probability that it actually occurred.
However, what archeology does not support is the Exodus as it is described in the Torah: two million people leaving Egypt with spoils, animals and goods, wandering the wilderness for 40 years then conquering Canaan. Some myths and tales become embellished over time, or specifically rewritten to illustrate a point. Authors of antiquity did not think about history the same way we do today and were often willing to compose myths and tales that, while not historically true, were seen as allegorical truths to prove a point about relationships with gods and other peoples. Occasionally these tales are thought to have kernels of historical truth, around which has been built a much larger legend.
So could there be a kernel of truth in the Exodus story? Richard Elliott Friedman has put forth a very interesting hypothesis that suggests there really was an Exodus, just not the way the Bible describes it.
Friedman suggests that the Exodus was of a significantly smaller scale than is described. Notably, he suggests that it was only the group we call “Levites”. There is some very interesting evidence for this.
First is that Levites in the Bible have Egyptian names, such as Moses, Phinehas, Hophni and Hur. These are as distinctive as “Cavoletti”, “O’Hara” or “Kosaka” would be for their heritages today. Second are what are thought to be the two oldest passages in the Bible: the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:1-18) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31).
The Song of Miriam, or Song of the Sea, is a poem written in very archaic Hebrew that describes the departure of Egypt, yet never once mentions or otherwise uses the name “Israel”. It speaks only of a “people” leaving Egypt. This would make more sense if it were only referring to a single people, such as the Levites. Otherwise the lack of any mention of Israel is very odd here, which means very improbable if it really were speaking of all of Israel.
The Song of Deborah is another ancient poem, this time written in Israel itself. While it enumerates ten tribes of Israel, there is one tribe conspicuously absent: the Levites. Why were they absent from the enumeration? Either they were not there (perhaps in Egypt?) or they aren’t an ethnic tribe, but a priestly group. Or both. This passage is also among those listed above that indicate Yahweh’s Edomite origin.
So the Song of Miriam, which takes place in Egypt, doesn’t mention Israel. The Song of Deborah, taking place in Israel, doesn’t mention Levites. This makes more sense under the assumption that the Levites weren’t actually a tribe, but a priestly people, or that the Levites simply weren’t there yet.
Evidence from the Sources
As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, the Torah was likely written by 4 primary sources: J, E, D and P. Three of these four sources are attributed to Levitical priests (E, D and P).
E and P have an interesting distinction from the J source: according to both of them, the name Yahweh wasn’t known until it was revealed to Moses on Sinai/Horeb while in the J source, the name was always known. According to E and P, Yahweh was previously known as El (El Shaddai). The fact that E and P, both Levitical priests, attribute the revelation of the divine name during the Exodus in Sinai/Teman/Edom is evidence that Levitical priests learned of this name in the very same region as suggested by the Kenite hypothesis.
This is significant because these authors seem to be suggesting that in the land of Midianites, Yahweh revealed to Moses that he was, in fact, El, the God of old in Israel. The Ancient of Days that was above all other gods. If the hypothesis is that Levites brought the worship of Yahweh to Israel after leaving Egypt and passing through Edom, this evidence fits very nicely. It would then be incumbent on these priests to introduce this new god to Israel in a way that is appealing to them: by suggesting that Yahweh is the same as the god El that they have already been worshiping. This will be significant in Part 5 of Picking at Threads.
E, P and D are also adamant that foreigners be treated well. In Deuteronomy 23:8 (the same verse that commands not to find Edomites detestable) it is commanded that Egyptians be treated well because they were once strangers in their land. This commandment to treat foreigners well is found all throughout E, D and P (all Levitical priests), yet is missing in J. More evidence that the authors of these passages are descended from ancestors who knew what it was like to live in a foreign land, in particular Egypt.
In addition to the Egyptian names among the Levites, there are three other Egyptian influences in the cult of Yahweh.
First is the Tabernacle. There are more words written about the Tabernacle in the Torah than any other single topic, and it is written by P. The J author has nothing to say about the Tabernacle. Not a single word of mention from the only non-Levite source. It has been shown that there are magnificent architectural parallels between the tent of Rameses II and the Tabernacle, such as proportions, a central area covered by curtains and other similarities. This leads to another Egyptian influence: the similarity between the ark of the covenant and Egyptian funerary barques and the associated symbolism. In particular, the idea of a god inhabiting a central area of a temple, and in particular within an object. Even the design of the ark bears similarity to Egyptian barques.
An Egyptian barque was essentially a funerary or religious object, shaped like a small boat with a box, though not actually used as a boat. It often had gold plating, was carried only by priests who had gone through purification rituals and only on poles. They were often “protected” by symbols such as the wings of Horus and sphinx like creatures that between the two, bear strong resemblance to the cherubim creatures in the Bible and other similar creatures of myth in the Ancient Near East. There are more parallels than this, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader by providing a link at the bottom of this article.
Finally there is the practice of circumcision. The oldest evidence of male circumcision are several Egyptian writings and inscriptions dating as far back as 2300 BC. The Egyptians had been practicing it for thousands of years and it is very well attested to in their inscriptions. It is entirely possible that the Levites picked up this practice while in Egypt and brought it into the cult of Yahweh.
Why were there Levites in Egypt to begin with?
The answer to this question could be as simple as that they went to Egypt to make lives for themselves or any number of reasons. But there is another possibility that is fascinating as well as supported by historical evidence. The Hyksos.
Between Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom was a major downturn and this vulnerability led to its conquest by a group known in the Greek language as the “hyksos”, which translates to “rulers of foreign countries”. The historical record shows that these people were Semitic speaking people evidently (by their theophoric names) Canaanite. Their primary deity was Ba’al, whom they equated with the Egyptian god Set. They ruled Egypt for only 100 years (about 1650 BC until 1550 BC) before they were driven out by Ahmose I, bringing in the New Kingdom and legendary pharaohs such as Amenhotep III, Rameses II, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
1550 BC is entirely too early for the fleeing Hyksos to have been the Levites of the Exodus, but that’s not what is suggested here. A lot can happen in a century, and it certainly seems reasonable that a group of Canaanites had either become culturally integrated with Egypt or were allowed to stay due to some privilege, perhaps being a priestly caste. In any case, it’s quite possible that the Levites who left Egypt in Friedman’s little Exodus were among the remnants of the Hyksos.
A few scholars have put forth controversial hypotheses such that Moses was the same person as the heretical monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten, and that Judaism’s later monotheism was a direct result. I only bring this up because it comes up in discussions about this time period, especially when Levites are mentioned, but these aren’t accepted by either mainstream Egyptologists or Biblical historians.
I don’t find it far-fetched to think that Levites could have been inspired by Egyptian priests. In fact, this is what Friedman argues to some extent. But to suggest that it was Akhenatens’s specifically, or even that monotheism was an idea they found attractive would be mere speculation.
No matter the reason or the history, the idea of a priestly caste living in Egypt, later to leave in what would eventually be retold as the Exodus, is certainly plausible.
The hypotheses briefly surveyed here aren’t certain. At best we can say that at the present time the Kenite Hypothesis is the most probable explanation of the very few we have to begin with, as it explains the current evidence best. Friedman’s historical Exodus also seems to explain current evidence well and even accounts for a lack of evidence for the Biblical Exodus. Best of all, both of these hypotheses fit nicely together, as follows:
- The land of Edom and Midian, inhabited by a group known as Kenites, possibly metalworkers, had a local storm god named Yahweh, possibly another name for their god Qos, or coexisting with him. This group was known at the time by Egyptians as Shasu of Yahweh.
- A group of Hebrews called Levites spent time in Egypt or perhaps were even born there as descendant of the Hyksos, and were influenced by Egyptian culture and cultic practice such as the barques, their war tents and the practice of circumcision. These Hebrews (or a part of them) left Egypt.
- On the way from Egypt they made their way through Edom and intermingled with the local peoples (Midianites/Kenites) where they were exposed to the local storm and war god, Yahweh. It’s possible they spent nearly a generation “wandering the desert” as nomads (shasu). A generation in Judaism is often expressed as “40 years”.
- These Levites were possibly led by a man named Moses (an Egyptian name) who would later be significantly mythologized
- Or maybe Moses never existed (I haven’t read the scholarship on this yet)
- The Levites brought this new deity into Canaan/Israel (possibly Samaria in particular), a land currently inhabited by polytheists whose primary deities were Ba’al, Astarte, Asherah and most particularly El, the head of their pantheon, which created a conflict that required creative resolutions (important in Part 5).
- This Levitical line of priests would go on to compose much of the Torah and Deuteronomic history of Israel, including the mythical components of the Exodus and conquest of Israel and others inspired by earlier myths such as the Babylonian creation story, Sumerian and Babylonian flood myths, Sargon’s birth narrative and the Canaanite myths that already pervaded the culture of Israel.
- These Levitical authors, as well as others, remembered the Edomite origins in oral traditions and possibly lost written traditions that would go on to inspire tales like Cain, Jacob and Esau and commandments to respect Edomites and foreigners, especially Egyptians.
Perhaps new evidence in the future will shed more light on these hypotheses, either further confirming or disproving them. Until then, I think these two together are the best explanation we have for the origin of Yahwism.
Part 5 will look at what happened when this new god was brought into an already religious, polytheistic culture that had been worshiping Ancient Near Eastern gods for centuries, if not millennia. It may take a couple of months to write part 5, however, as I am in the process of reading three books on the subject of ancient Israel and its gods.