Yahweh was the national god of the kingdoms of Israel (Samaria) and Judah.
His origins reach at least to the early Iron Age and apparently to the Late Bronze, and 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 Yahweh alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, Asherah, and Baal, but in time El and Yahweh became conflated, 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.
From the 9th into the 6th centuries BCE the Yahwistic religion separated itself from its Canaanite heritage as Yahweh became the main god of the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and of Judah, and over time the royal court and Temple in Jerusalem promoted Yahweh as the god of the entire cosmos, possessing all the positive qualities previously attributed to the other gods and goddesses.
By 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.
Bronze Age origins
There is almost no agreement on the meaning and origins of the name Yahweh, which 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, appears to be a late theological gloss invented to explain Yahweh’s name at a time when the original meaning had been forgotten.
The oldest plausible recorded occurrence of his name is in the phrase “land of 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.
In this case, a plausible etymology for the name could be from the root HWY, which would yield the meaning “he blows“, appropriate to a weather divinity.
There is considerable but not universal support for this view, but it raises the question of how he made his way to the north. The widely accepted Kenite hypothesis holds that traders brought Yahweh to Israel along the caravan routes between Egypt and Canaan.
The strength of the Kenite hypothesis is that it 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.
However, while it is entirely plausible that the Kenites and others may have introduced Yahweh to Israel, it is unlikely that they did so outside the borders of Israel or under the aegis of Moses, as the Exodus story has it.
Iron Age I (1200–930 BCE): El, Yahweh, and the origins of Israel
Israel emerges into the historical record in the last decades of the 13th century BCE, at the very end of the Late Bronze Age when the Canaanite city-state system was ending, and the milieu from which Israelite religion emerged was accordingly Canaanite.
El, “the kind, the compassionate“, “the creator of creatures“, was the chief of the Canaanite gods, and he, not Yahweh, was the original “God of Israel”—the word “Israel” is based on the name El rather than Yahweh.
He lived in a tent on a mountain from whose base originated all the fresh waters of the world, with the goddess Asherah as his consort.
This pair made up the top tier of the Canaanite pantheon; the second tier was made up of their children, the “seventy sons of Athirat” (a variant of the name Asherah).
Prominent in this group was Baal, who had his home on Mount Zaphon; over time Baal became the dominant Canaanite deity so that El became the executive power and Baal the military power in the cosmos. Baal’s sphere was the thunderstorm with its life-giving rains, so that he was also a fertility god, although not quite the fertility god.
Below the seventy second-tier gods was a third tier made up of comparatively minor craftsman and trader deities, with a fourth and final tier of divine messengers and the like.
El and his sons made up the Assembly of the Gods, each member of which had a human nation under his care, and a textual variant of Deuteronomy 32:8–9 describes El dividing the nations of the world among his sons, with Yahweh receiving Israel:
When the Most High (‘elyôn) gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated humanity,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of divine beings.
For Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
The Israelites initially worshipped Yahweh alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, Asherah and Baal.
In the period of the Judges and the first half of the monarchy, El and Yahweh became conflated in a process of religious syncretism. As a result, ‘el became a generic term meaning “god“, as opposed to the name of a worshipped deity, and epithets such as El Shaddai came to be applied to Yahweh alone, diminishing the worship of El and strengthening the position of Yahweh.
Features of Baal, El, and Asherah were absorbed into the Yahwistic religion, Asherah possibly becoming embodied in the feminine aspects of the Shekinah or divine presence, and Baal’s nature as a storm and weather god becoming assimilated into Yahweh’s own identification with the storm.
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.
Iron Age II (1000–586 BCE): Yahweh as God of Israel
Iron Age Yahweh was the national god of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and appears to have been worshipped only in these two kingdoms; this was unusual in the Ancient Near East but not unknown—the god Ashur, for example, was worshipped only by the Assyrians.
After the 9th century BCE the tribes and chiefdoms of Iron Age I was replaced by ethnic nation-states, Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon and others, each with its national god, and all more or less equal.
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).
In each kingdom the king was also the head of the national religion and thus the viceroy on Earth of the national god; in Jerusalem, this was reflected each year when the king presided over a ceremony at which Yahweh was enthroned in the Temple.
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 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“, 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.
Yahweh and the rise of monotheism
Pre-exilic Israel, like its neighbors, was polytheistic, and Israelite monotheism was the result of unique historical circumstances. The original god of Israel was El, as the name demonstrates—its probable meaning is “may El rule” or some other sentence-form involving the name of El.
In the early tribal period, each tribe would have had its own patron god; when kingship emerged, the state promoted Yahweh as the national god of Israel, supreme over the other gods, and gradually Yahweh absorbed all the positive traits of the other gods and goddesses.
Yahweh and El merged at religious centers such as Shechem, Shiloh, and Jerusalem, with El’s name becoming a generic term for “god” and Yahweh, the national god, appropriating many of the older supreme god’s titles such as El Shaddai (Almighty) and Elyon (Most High).
Asherah, formerly the wife of El, was worshipped as Yahweh’s consort or mother; potsherds discovered at Khirbet el-Kôm and Kuntillet Ajrûd make reference to “Yahweh and his Asherah“, and various biblical passages indicate that her statues were kept in his temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria.
Yahweh may also have appropriated Anat, the wife of Baal, as his consort, as Anat-Yahu is mentioned in 5th century BCE records from the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt.
A goddess called the Queen of Heaven was also worshipped, probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, possibly a title of Asherah.
Worship of Baal and Yahweh coexisted in the early period of Israel’s history, but they were considered irreconcilable after the 9th century BCE, following the efforts of King Ahab and his queen Jezebel to elevate Baal to the status of national god, although the cult of Baal did continue for some time.
The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with 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.
Second Temple Judaism
In 539 BCE Babylon itself fell to the Persian conqueror Cyrus, and in 538 BCE the exiles were permitted to return to Yehud Medinata, as the Persian province of Judah was known.
The Temple is commonly said to have been rebuilt in the period 520–515 BCE, but it seems probable this is an artificial date chosen so that 70 years could be said to have passed between the destruction and the rebuilding, fulfilling a prophecy of Jeremiah.
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 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).
Second Temple Judaism was centered not on synagogues, which began to appear only in the 3rd century BCE, and the reading and study of scripture, but on the Temple itself, and on a cycle of continual blood sacrifice (meaning the sacrifice of live animals).
Torah, or ritual law, was also important, and the Temple priests were responsible for teaching it, but the concept of scripture developed only slowly. While the written Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets were accepted as authoritative by the 1st century CE, beyond this core the different Jewish groups continued to accept different groups of books as authoritative.
During 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, 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, 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 was 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).
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.
Tacitus, John the Lydian, and Cornelius Labeo 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.
In his Quaestiones Convivales, the Greek writer Plutarch writes 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.