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Yahweh (// or //; Hebrew: יהוה), was the national god of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The name probably originated as an epithet of the god El, head of the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon ("El who is present, who makes himself manifest"), and appears to have been unique to Israel and Judah, although a god Yahweh may have been worshiped south of the Dead Sea at least three centuries before the emergence of Israel (the Kenite hypothesis).
In the oldest biblical literature (12th–11th centuries BCE) Yahweh is a typical ancient Near Eastern "divine warrior" who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies; he and Israel are bound by a covenant (a feature unique in ancient Near Eastern religion) under which Yahweh will protect Israel, and Israel in turn will not worship other gods. At a later period Yahweh functioned as the dynastic cult (the god of the royal house), the royal courts promoting him as the supreme god over all others in the pantheon, notably Baal, El, and Asherah (the last of whom may have been his consort). Over time Yahwism became increasingly intolerant of rivals, and the royal court and temple promoted Yahweh as God of the entire cosmos, possessing all the positive qualities previously attributed to the other gods and goddesses. With the work of Second Isaiah (the theoretical author of the second part of the Book of Isaiah) towards the end of the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE), the very existence of foreign gods was denied, and Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and true God of all the world.
By early post-biblical times the name of Yahweh had ceased to be pronounced. In modern Judaism it is replaced with the word Adonai, meaning Lord, and is understood to be God's proper name and to denote his mercy. Many Christian Bibles follow the Jewish custom and replace it with "the Lord".
In the Hebrew Bible the name is written as יהוה (YHWH), as biblical Hebrew was written with consonants only. The original pronunciation of YHWH was lost many centuries ago, but the available evidence indicates that it was in all likelihood Yahweh, meaning approximately "he causes to be" or "he creates". The origins of the god are unclear: an influential suggestion, although not universally accepted, is that the name originally formed part of a title of the Canaanite supreme deity El, el dū yahwī ṣaba’ôt, "El who creates the hosts", meaning the heavenly army accompanying El as he marched out beside the earthly armies of Israel; the alternative proposal connects it with a place-name south of Canaan mentioned in Egyptian records from the Late Bronze Age.
By early post-biblical times the name Yahweh had ceased to be pronounced aloud, except once a year by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies; on all other occasions it was replaced by Adonai, meaning "my Lord".  Some of the surviving Septuagint manuscripts from the first century BCE replace the Tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, meaning "lord". In modern Judaism it is one of the seven names of God which must not be erased, and is the name denoting God's mercy. The Catholic Church never used the name Yahweh in liturgical texts or bibles before Vatican II, after which it began to see limited use in the Jerusalem Bible and certain contemporary hymns. In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments directed that the word "Lord" and its equivalent in other languages be used instead. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI ordered the Pontifical Biblical Commission to investigate whether the use of the name Yahweh was offensive to Jewish groups, and in 2008 the Vatican recommended against the use of the word in new bibles and prohibited its continued use in vernacular worship. The King James Version and many older translations of the Christian Bible transliterate Yahweh as Jehovah, but almost all modern Bibles substitute "the LORD" and "GOD" for the tetragrammaton, although the Sacred Name Movement, active since the 1930s, propagates the use of the name Yahweh in Bible translations and in liturgy.
The earliest putative reference to Yahweh in the historical record occurs in a list of Bedouin tribes of the Transjordan made by Amenhotep III. In it, mention is made of the Shasu of Yhw. In 1979, Michael Astour suggested that the hieroglyphic rendering of Yhw corresponded very well with what would be expected if the term signified Yahweh. Donald B. Redford thinks it reasonable to conclude that the demonym 'Israel' recorded on the Merneptah Stele refers to a Shasu enclave, and that, since later Biblical tradition portrays Yahweh "coming forth from Se'ir" the Shasu, originally from Moab and northern Edom, went on to form one major element in the amalgam that was to constitute the "Israel" which later established the Kingdom of Israel. Rainey has a similar view in his analysis of the el-Amarna letters.
A large body of scholars, following William Dever, argue that the archaeological evidence suggests that the Israelites arose peacefully and internally in the highlands of Canaan. In Dever's words, "most of those who came to call themselves Israelites ... were or had been indigenous Canaanites." In this view, what distinguished Israel from other emerging Iron Age Canaanite societies was the belief in Yahweh as the national god, rather than, for example, Chemosh, the god of Moab, or Milcom, the god of the Ammonites. This would require that the Transjordanian Yahweh worshipers not be identified with Israelites, but perhaps with Edomite tribes who introduced Yahweh to Israel. One longstanding theory is that Yahweh originated as a warrior-god in the region of Edom and Midian, south of Judah, and was introduced into the northern and central highlands by southern tribes such as the Kenites; Karel van der Toorn has suggested that his rise to prominence in Israel was due to the influence of Saul, Israel's first king, who was of Edomite background.
Several pieces of evidence have led scholars to the conclusion that El was the original "God of Israel"—for example, the word "Israel" is based on the name of El rather than on that of Yahweh. El was the head of the Canaanite pantheon, with Asherah as his consort and Baal and other deities making up the pantheon. With his rise, Yahweh became identified with El to such an extent that El's name became a generic word meaning simply "god"; Asherah became Yahweh's consort, and Yahweh and Baal at first co-existed and later competed within the popular religion.
In the monarchic period the king functioned as head of the national religion. The kings used national religion to exert their authority, but gods other than Yahweh continued to be worshiped. Evidence increasingly suggests that many Israelites worshiped Asherah as Yahweh's consort.
Archaeologists and historical scholars use a variety of ways to organize and interpret the available iconographic and textual information. William G. Dever contrasts "official religion/state religion/book religion" of the elite with “folk religion” of the masses. Rainer Albertz contrasts "official religion" with "family religion", "personal piety", and "internal religious pluralism". Jacques Berlinerblau analyzes the evidence in terms of "official religion" and "popular religion" in ancient Israel.
Patrick D. Miller has distinguished three broad categories of Yahwism: orthodox, heterodox, and syncretistic. Orthodox Yahwism demanded the exclusive worship of Yahweh (although without denying the existence of other gods). The powers of blessing (health, wealth, continuity, fertility) and salvation (forgiveness, victory, deliverance from oppression and threat) resided fully in Yahweh, and his will was communicated via oracle and prophetic vision or audition. Divination, soothsaying, and necromancy were prohibited. The individual or community could cry out to Yahweh and would receive a divine response, mediated by priestly or prophetic figures.
Sanctuaries were erected in various places and were used to express devotion to Yahweh by means of sacrifice, festival meals and celebrations, prayer, and praise. Toward the end of the seventh century (BCE) in Judah, worship of Yahweh was restricted to the temple in Jerusalem, while the major sanctuaries in the northern kingdom were at Bethel (near the southern border) and Dan (in the north). Certain times were set for the gathering of the people to celebrate the gifts of Yahweh and the deity’s acts of deliverance and redemption.
Everything in the moral realm was understood as a part of relation to Yahweh as a manifestation of holiness. Family relationships and the welfare of the weaker members of society were protected by divine law, and purity of conduct, dress, food, etc. were regulated. Religious leadership resided in priests who were associated with sanctuaries, and also in prophets, who were bearers of divine oracles. In the political sphere the king was understood as the appointee and agent of Yahweh.
Heterodox Yahwism is described by Miller as a mixture of elements of orthodox Yahwism with particular practices that conflicted with orthodox Yahwism or were not customarily a part of it. For example, heterodox Yahwism included the presence of cult objects rejected in by orthodox expressions, such as the Asherah, figurines of various sorts (females, horses and riders, animals and birds, and the calves or bulls of the Northern Kingdom. The "high places" as centers of worship seems to have moved from an acceptable place within Yahwism to an increasingly condemned status in official and orthodox circles. Efforts to know the future or the will of the deity could also be understood as heterodox if they went outside the boundaries of orthodox Yahwism, and even commonly accepted revelatory mechanism such as dreams could be condemned if the resulting message was perceived as false. Consulting mediums, wizards, and diviners was often employed by heterodox Yahwists.
Syncretism covers the worship of Baal, the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars), the "Queen of Heaven" and other deities as well as practices such as child sacrifice: "Other gods were invoked and serviced in time of need or blessing and provision for life when the worship of Yahweh seemed inadequate for those purposes." Evidence increasingly suggests that many Israelites worshipped Asherah as the consort of Yahweh, and various biblical passages indicate that statues of the goddess were kept in Yahweh's temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria. Further evidence includes the many female figurines unearthed in ancient Israel, supporting the view that Asherah functioned as a goddess and consort of Yahweh and was worshiped as the Queen of Heaven.
Following the destruction of the monarchy and loss of the land at the beginning of the 6th century (the period of the Babylonian exile), a search for a new identity led to a re-examination of Israel's traditions. Yahweh now became the only god in the cosmos.
|The neutrality of this section is disputed. (September 2013)|
It has traditionally been believed that monotheism was part of Israel's original covenant with Yahweh on Mount Sinai, and the idolatry criticized by the prophets was due to Israel's backsliding. With the rise of biblical archaeology and biblical criticism in the 20th century, however, an increasing number of scholars questioned the traditional view of the development of monotheism in Ancient Near Eastern religions. The rise of the Documentary hypothesis lead scholars to question the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, leading many source critics to see the first five books of the bible as having multiple authors, reflecting different theological perspectives of their time. Scholars formulated theories that the Israelites were not always monotheistic, but went though a period of henotheism, the worship of one god while acknowledging the existence of others, which fits with the Ten Commandments ordering the Israelites not to worship any god other than Yahweh. Other clues of a henotheistic phase are found in the book of Exodus, where the Israelites sing that "there is no god like you, O Yahweh" at the crossing of the Red Sea
Evidence of Israelite worship of Canaanite gods appears both in the Bible and the archaeological record. Respectful references to the goddess Asherah or her symbol, for example, as part of the worship of Yahweh, are found in the eighth century inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom, and references to the Canaanite gods Resheph and Deber ("pestilence" and "plague") appear without criticism in Habakkuk 3:5 as part of the military retinue of Yahweh. The "host of heaven" is also mentioned without criticism in 1 Kings 22:19 and Zephaniah 1:5. The god El is also continually identified with Yahweh.
Israel inherited polytheism from late first-millennium BCE Canaan, and Canaanite religion in turn had its roots in the religion of second-millennium Ugarit. In the 2nd millennium BCE, polytheism was expressed through the concepts of the Divine Council and the divine family, a single entity with four levels: the chief god and his wife (El and Asherah); the seventy divine children or "stars of El" (including Baal, Astarte, Anat, probably Resheph, as well as the sun-goddess Shapshu and the moon-god Yerak); the head helper of the divine household, Kothar wa-Hasis; and the servants of the divine household, including the messenger-gods who would later appear as the "angels" of the Hebrew Bible.
In the earliest stage Yahweh was one of the seventy children of El, each of whom was the patron deity of one of the seventy nations. This is illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint texts of Deuteronomy 32:8–9, in which El, as the head of the divine assembly, gives each member of the divine family a nation of his own, "according to the number of the divine sons": Israel is the portion of YHWH.
Between the eighth to the sixth centuries El became identified with Yahweh, Yahweh-El became the husband of the goddess Asherah, and the other gods and the divine messengers gradually became mere expressions of Yahweh's power. Yahweh is cast in the role of the Divine King ruling over all the other deities, as in Psalm 29:2, where the "sons of God" are called upon to worship Yahweh; and as Ezekiel 8–10 suggests, the Temple itself became Yahweh's palace, populated by those in his retinue.
Many scholars that reject mosaic authorship of the Torah consider the Book of Deutoronomy to have been written by a Deuteronomist source in the 6th century BCE, during the Babylonian exile. It is in this period that the earliest clear monotheistic statements appear in the Bible, for example in the apparently seventh-century Deuteronomy 4:35, 39, 1 Samuel 2:2, 2 Samuel 7:22, 2 Kings 19:15, 19 (= Isaiah 37:16, 20), and Jeremiah 16:19, 20 and the sixth-century portion of Isaiah 43:10–11, 44:6, 8, 45:5–7, 14, 18, 21, and 46:9. Because many of the passages involved appear in works associated with either Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through Kings) or in Jeremiah, most recent scholarly treatments have suggested that a Deuteronomistic movement of this period developed the idea of monotheism as a response to the religious issues of the time.
The first factor behind this development involves changes in Israel's social structure. At Ugarit, social identity was strongest at the level of the family: legal documents, for example, were often made between the sons of one family and the sons of another. Ugarit's religion, with its divine family headed by El and Asherah, mirrored this human reality. The same was true in ancient Israel through most of the monarchy—for example, the story of Achan in the Book of Joshua suggests an extended family as the major social unit. However, the family lineages went through traumatic changes beginning in the eighth century due to major social stratification, followed by Assyrian incursions. In the seventh and sixth centuries, we begin to see expressions of individual identity (Deuteronomy 26:16; Jeremiah 31:29–30; Ezekiel 18). A culture with a diminished lineage system, deteriorating over a long period from the ninth or eighth century onward, less embedded in traditional family patrimonies, might be more predisposed both to hold the individual accountable for his behavior, and to see an individual deity accountable for the cosmos. In short, the rise of the individual as the basic social unit led to the rise of a single god replacing a divine family.
The second major factor was the rise of the neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian empires. As long as Israel was, from its own perspective, part of a community of similar small nations, it made sense to see the Israelite pantheon on par with the other nations, each one with its own patron god—the picture described with Deuteronomy 32:8–9. The assumption behind this worldview was that each nation was as powerful as its patron god. However, the neo-Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom in ca. 722 challenged this, for if the neo-Assyrian empire were so powerful, so must be its god; and conversely, if Israel could be conquered (and later Judah, c. 586), it implied that Yahweh in turn was a minor divinity. The crisis was met by separating the heavenly power and earthly kingdoms. Even though Assyria and Babylon were so powerful, the new monotheistic thinking in Israel reasoned, this did not mean that the god of Israel and Judah was weak. Assyria had not succeeded because of the power of its god Marduk; it was Yahweh who was using Assyria to punish and purify the one nation which Yahweh had chosen.
By the post–Exilic period, full monotheism had emerged: Yahweh was the sole god, not just of Israel, but of the whole world. If the nations were tools of Yahweh, then the new king who would come to redeem Israel might not be a Judean as taught in older literature (e.g. Psalm 2). Now, even a foreigner such as Cyrus the Persian could serve as the Lord's anointed (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1). One god stood behind all the world's history.
The fifth century Elephantine papyri suggest that, "Even in exile and beyond, the veneration of a female deity endured." The texts were written by a group of Jews living at Elephantine near the Nubian border, whose religion has been described as "nearly identical to Iron Age II Judahite religion". The papyri describe the Jews as worshiping Anat-Yahu (or AnatYahu). Anat-Yahu is described as either the wife (or paredra, sacred consort) of Yahweh or as a hypostatized aspect of Yahweh.