Yahweh and the Levites

Part Of: Demystifying Religion sequence
Related To: Who Wrote The Bible?
Content Summary: 4000 words, 20min read.

Exodus 3:14 has God saying to Moses, “I Am that I Am.” And he said, “You must say this to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” The Hebrew initials for “I am that I am” is YHWH (pronounced “Yahweh”). This tetragrammaton is the name of the god of Judaism.

But where, and by whom, was Yahweh first worshipped?

Today, we shall see that Yahweh was originally a god of metallurgy in northwest Saudi Arabia. The Levites brought worship of him to Israel via a “mini-Exodus”.

A Disclaimer

The historicity of the exodus is a fairly partisan topic. Many uninformed people like to give their opinions, and many opinions are uninformed. 

None of my material comes from Christian or atheistic apologetic websites. I made a point to only draw material from academic sources. Specifically, I draw from the following books (and journal articles and lecture videos, not pictured):

Yahweh_ Books

People familiar with this field will note that my sources do not see eye to eye. For example, Friedman and Romer leverage conservative and liberal approaches, respectively. Yet despite the range of expression, my sources converge on complementary solutions to the origin of Yahweh. My task today is to weld their insights together into a coherent whole.

Researching this post has felt a little like digging into a mystery novel. I hope reading it provides you with a similar experience.

Stage 1: El’s Pantheon in Israel

1.1) Certain aspects of Israelite prehistory as given by the Bible are non-historical.

First, a mass exodus of two million people (six hundred thousand fighting-age men) is not vanishingly unlikely. If it had actually happened, we would expect

  1. physical debris from the pilgrimage, at any of the thirty locations they are said to have stopped.
  2. archaeological evidence of a dramatic demographic shift in the highlands of Israel.
  3. inclusion in the (otherwise quite voluminous) records of the Egyptian border guards
  4. Egyptian texts discussing the new political situation (since the Egyptians had control over, and military outposts throughout Canaan)

And how much evidence do we have in each of these four dimensions? Literally zero evidence- in all of them. Recall that absence of evidence can (and in this case does) mean evidence of absence. The very first piece of evidence confirming the Biblical text is from 1000 BCE, where the Tel Dan stele affirms the existence of the “house of David”.

Second, the conquest narrative is non-historical. Most cities listed as razed in the Joshua narrative show evidence of uninterrupted prosperity in the archaeological record. And the three (out of thirty-one!) cities that do show interruption have not been localized to Israelite violence.

Third, until 700 BCE Judah is a much smaller political force than it makes itself to be. One demonstration of the small scale of this society is the request in one of the Armarna letter sent by the king of Jerusalem to the pharaoh that he supply fifty men “to protect the land.” Another letter asks the pharoah for one hundred soldiers to guard Megiddo from an attack by his aggressive neighbor, the king of Shechem. (Finkelstein, pp78). These letters date to the 14th century BCE. But the population in the intervening time period does not change much. Until 700 BCE, Judah’s population totaled no more than twenty settlements with a population of roughly 30,000. Only after the fall of Israel did Judah experience a population boom and full statehood.   

1.2) The Israelite people were indigenous Canaanites.

So where did the Israelite people come from? The Israelite people were originally Canaanite pastoralists who, in 1300 BCE. changed their economic strategy in response to worsening conditions. We have a wealth of evidence supporting this positive hypothesis, including:

  • Ecological: we now know that the Late Bronze Age collapse (a dark age from 1200 – 900 BCE) was caused primarily by climate change-driven famine. The pastoralist strategy can only be successful if neighboring agriculturalists have surplus wheat available to trade. When that surplus dried up, former pastoralists are forced to grow their own wheat, and adapt a hybrid lifestyle.
  • Linguistic: Hebrew and Canaanite language are increasingly indistinguishable the further back you go in the Iron Age.
  • Material culture: Israelite and Canaanites shared the same building plans, pottery designs, village layouts, cooking habits …
  • Historic repetition: Canaanite pastoralists had twice before settled the highlands, but the previous two attempts had eventually failed.

We can also see when these highlands settlements began to slowly differentiate themselves from their “parent” lowland cities. First, the highland settlements did not consume pork (pigs were available for food in all regions of Canaan). Second, the highland peoples seemed to go identify themselves by the name “Israelite”, earliest mention of which is in the Merneptah stele (1204 BCE).

Since Israelites were indigenous Canaanites, we know they share the same culture. But did they start out worship the same gods?

1.3) The Israelites and the Canaanites shared the same religion: the pantheon of El.

In Egyptian mythology, the most powerful god was Ra. In Babylon, it was Marduk. In Greece, it was Chronus.

Monotheism_ Greek Pantheon

In Canaan, the chief god was El. El’s wife was Asherah, and his sons include Ba’al and Anut. The Canaanite pantheon is well-understood from the discovery of the Ugaritic texts.

In most English translations of the Hebrew Bible, you will see frequent use of the words “God” and “Lord”. The Hebrew terms for these phrases are more literally translated “El” and “Yahweh”. They are used so interchangeably in the Hebrew Bible that you would think them synonyms.

  • Names. The very name “Israel” means “house of El”. In contrast, later Israelite names have “Yahweh”-based suffixes e.g., Jehu. Further, most Israelite cities were named after the gods in El’s assembly.  The god Anat was honored in the city of Anathoth, the place of origin of the prophet Jeremiah. The god Dagan in Beth-Dagan. The god El in Beth-El. The god Shamash in Beth-Shamash. The god Shalimu in Jerusalem.
  • Ritual systems. The priestly system laid out in Leviticus is very nearly copy-and-pasted from the Ugaritic sacrificial system.
  • Legal codes. the Covenant, Holiness, and Deuteronomic law codes share strong parallels with surrounding Canaanite legal systems.
  • Iconography. A seal found in Jerusalem in a tomb of the seventh century shows a solar god flanked by two minor gods: “Righteousness” and “Justice”

There are also expressions of polytheism throughout the Hebrew Bible. For example,

  • “Do you not possess that which Chemosh, your god, has given you? So shall we possess what Yahweh has given us.” Judges 11:24
  • “Who is like Yahweh among the gods?” Exodus 15:11
  • “The people of Judah have as many gods as they have towns.” Jeremiah 11:13

In part two of this series, we will see hundreds more data establishing Israel’s traditional religion as polytheism.

Stage 2: Yahwism in Edom

2.1) The original Yahweh cult was a Shasu religion located in southern Edom (northwest Saudi Arabia). (video)

Recognized for their goatees and hair held back in a hairband, the Shasu nomads were well-known to the Egyptian authorities. They conducted copper mining in the wilderness, and also were quite successful camel breeders. The Bible uses the terms Edom, Teman, and Midianite interchangeably. Egyptian descriptions of the Shasu geographically overlap the Biblical land of the Midianites.

Okay. So how do we know that the Yahweh cult originated with the Shashu people?

  • Four of the oldest texts in the Bible tell us so. See Deut 33:2, Judges 5:4-5, Habakkuk 3:3 and Isaiah 63:1.
  • Special treatment of Edom. The Bible repeatedly condemns the gods of the Ammonites, the Moabites, and the Sidionites, but never the god of Edom. Deut 23:7 calls Edomites the “brothers” of the Israelites. Edom’s patriarch Esau is said to be the brother of Israel’s patriarch Jacob.
    • The Bible makes a point of not mentioning Qos, the national god of Edom. We have evidence that Qos was a rather late theological development in Edom. Given this evidence, it is plausible to assume that Yahweh was worshipped in Edom and Qos stepped in only when Yahweh became the national god of Israel/Judah.
  • Archaeology.  Two Egyptian inscriptions, one dated to the period of Amenhotep III (14th century BCE), the other to the age of Ramesses II (13th century BCE), refer to “Yahweh in the land of the Shasu”. We also have one 9th century BCE text at Kuntillet Ajrud which refers to “Yahweh of Teman”.

2.2) Who was Yahweh? A god of metallurgy.  (paper)

Gods in the ancient worlds were given a specific set of powers. For reasons we will get into next time, Yahweh in the Bible is attributed the attributes of many kinds of gods: he exhibits power of the storm, of the sun, and even of femininity. But if we limit our search for descriptions of God in Midianite territory, we see the following picture:

Stage 3. The Levite Encounter

The Bible was written by four authors: J, E, P and D. Of these, E, P and D are traced to Levite priestly authors. There exist startling differences across Levite and non-Levite texts.

3.1) There was no mass exodus. But there was a mini-exodus of a group of Levites from Egypt (article, video).

Textual evidence:

  • The two oldest things in the Bible are the Song of the Sea, and the Song of Deborah. The Song of the Sea is a Levite text that does not mention Israel. The Song of Deborah, meanwhile, lists all ten tribes of Israel (Judah and Simeon were a separate community at this time and not part of Israel) but doesn’t mention Levi. Similarly, all twelve tribes are mentioned in the Blessings of Moses, but it is the only tribe associated with the exodus.
  • Detail in Egyptian stories. Only the Levite sources — E, P, and also D — that tell the entire story of the plagues and exodus from Egypt.  J, the non-Levite source, doesn’t tell it. If you read J, it jumps from Moses’ saying “Let my people go” in Exodus 5:1f to the people’s already having departed Egypt in Exodus 13:21.
  • Name of God. If the Levites brought Yahweh into Israel, they should be keen to describe the relationship between Yahweh and El. And only our Levite sources do this: J presumes the name is Yahweh from the beginning of her document.
  • It is likewise the Levite sources that concentrate on the Tabernacle.  E mentions it a little; P treats it a lot. There is more about the Tabernacle than about anything else in the Torah.  But the non-Levite source J never mentions it at all.

Egypt was known to host many Semitic peoples over the years. It is not unthinkable to imagine some small group escaping. The Shasu people were allowed by Mernepteh to bring their herds into Egyptian territory. The absence of evidence only gravitates against a massive exodus. It is silent on the question of an exodus on a small scale.

  • Names of the Levites. Hophni, Hur, Phinehas, Merari, Pashhur and above all Moses are Egyptian names. No one else, in all the names mentioned in the Bible, has an Egyptian name. If Egyptian names were invented, why only attribute them to the Levites? Further, the story of Moses’ name suggests the Biblical redactors did not know these names were Egyptian).
  • Cultural derivatives. There are strong parallels between the Levite priests’ description of the Ark and Egyptian barks. Likewise, the Seraphim that occupy the First Temple come from Egypt (the uraeus) IG.151. The serpent on Aaron’s staff mirrors Egyptian mythology. Professor Michael Homan showed that the Tabernacle has architectural parallels with the battle tent of Pharaoh Ramses II.
  • Circumcision. Only texts written by Levites (11/11)  give the requirement to practice circumcision — which was a known practice in Egypt.  So Egyptian cultural influences are present, but only in the Levite texts!

3.2) Moses was a Midianite.

  • Moses is described as having settled down with the Midianite people (the Shasu). His wife Zipporah and two sons were Midianite. What’s more: Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is called a priest. A priest of what god? Well, in Exodus 18:12, Jethro (and not Moses) is portrayed initiating a sacrifice to Yahweh. The Biblical editors seem uncomfortable with this tradition, for they later interjected a confession of faith on Jethro’s lips, which very much mirrors other such confessions. All of this suggests that Moses’ Midianite father-in-law was a priest of Yahweh. In fact, he seems to have spiritual authority over Moses in this passage.
  • The E source is replete with this kind of claim. We first meet Moses in Midian (no claims of him being born in Egypt, in this document). Moses’ response to Yahweh’s call, “Who am I that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” would be a fair question for a man in Midian. E also claims he cannot go to Egypt because he is “heavy of tongue”. Traditionally interpreted as a speech defect, this phrase only occurs in one other place in the Hebrew Bible, where it means cannot speak the language. Finally, E also claims that the Midianites are direct descendents of Abraham.
  • While two Levite sources admit Moses’ Midianite connection, P actively tried to hide it. In the P source, has absolutely nothing about his ever being in Midian. Nothing about a Midianite wife, a priest father-in-law, nothing about his sons. Two books later, the P source injects a (blood-curdling) story designed to vilify the Midianites. Moses himself gives the order to kill all of the Midianite women. And this source does not include the little fact that Moses has a wife who happens to be a Midianite woman. The fact that the P source tries to deny the Midianite connection suggests the underlying claim is historical.

There are a couple problems with this theory. First, if Moses was Midianite, why did he have an Egyptian name? Further, why would he come to be in Egypt? There are ways around these difficulties (perhaps his name was retrofitted, or perhaps he didn’t come to Egypt, or …).

These problems illustrate that, unlike some of the other theories in this post, this particular hypothesis is under the most uncertainty. Fortunately, we can fairly easily swap it out with alternative theories (Moses as enslaved Levite, Moses as Egyptian royalty, etc) without harming the overall thesis. The key point in all of this, is that the Levites left Egypt and encountered Yahweh in Midian.

3.3) The Levites came into contact with the Shasu cult, and accelerated Yahweh’s introduction to Israel and Judah.

  • We need some account for how Yahweh was introduced into El’s pantheon. It is possible that Yahweh was slowly introduced to Israel via trade with its southern neighbors. However, the Levite emigration to Israel explains how the Yahweh cult became so influential.
  • Location of Sinai. Religious thinking in that era strongly associated gods with locations. In fact, deities were commonly thought to reside in sacred mountains. Mount Olympus was the home of Zeus & his pantheon. Mount Sapan was the home of Ba’al and his pantheon. Mount Sinai (aka Mount Horeb) was the house of Yahweh. This mountain was located in southern Edom, and the Levites regularly traveled to that location to worship him.
  • Exodus 24:8 features Moses splashing blood on his followers in a ritual ceremony. This kind of blood covenant was unknown to Canaan, but common in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Stage 4: El’s Adoption of Yahweh

4.1) On arrival into Israel, Yahweh was introduced as a second tier diety (a member of El’s family).

This can be seen in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, where El gives each of his sons a nation to rule over:

When El gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of El. For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.

In Psalm 82, we see Yahweh not at the head of the pantheon, but later asked to assume the job of all gods. “Yahweh stands in the divine assembly of El. Among the divinities, he pronounces judgment… Arise O Yahweh, judge the world; for You inherit all the nations.” Genesis 49:24-25 and Numbers 23-24 also view YHWH and El existing as distinct deities.

Again, we will see more evidence for this particular proposition in part two of this series.

4.2) The Levites “attached” themselves as priestly class

  • The Levites claim responsibility for the massacres in Genesis 34, Exodus 32:26-29, and Numbers 25:6-15 and Jacob’s blessing “Levi’s knives are vicious weapons. May I never enter their council. For in their anger they kill men, and on a whim they hamstring oxen. Their anger is cursed, for it is strong,and their fury, for it is cruel!” While the bloody purges specified in the conquest narrative are non-historical, they too speak towards the bloody zeal of the Levite people. All of this is to say: when they did arrive in Israel asking for refuge, they were not a people the Israelites could easily say no to.
  • In the book of Exodus, there are myriad references to “the people” and very few (retro-fitted) references to the Israelites. It is very plausible that “the people” referred exclusively to militant Levites. Deut 33:2-5 seems to support this distinction: “his people assembled with the tribes of Israel”.
  • On arrival, the Levites are not given territory. Instead, they are given a 10% tithe as priests. This fits into William Propp’s commentary on Exodus, which makes a strong case on the etymology of the very word “Levi” that its most probable meaning is an “attached person” in the sense of resident alien.
  • Over and over, the Levite sources command that one must not mistreat an alien. Why? “Because we were aliens in Egypt”. In the three Levite sources, the command to treat aliens fairly comes up 52 time! And how many times in the non-Levite source, J? None. Compared to legal texts of surrounding nations, this aspect is unique to the Israelite law code.

4.3) The Levites wrote the national history.

Those who accept the (very) strong reasons to think the mass exodus non-historical (section 1.1) need to explain how the story of the Exodus made it into the Bible. But we are not being asked to explain how it was invented whole-cloth. Rather, we must explain why and how memory of the mini-exodus (section 3.1) became stretched and aggrandized over time.

Why did the Levites invent the mass-exodus narrative?

  1. Promoting worship of Yahweh. The Levites were convinced that Yahweh had saved them from Egypt. What better way to have Israel worship Yahweh, than create a new history?
  2. Simple power politics. Political influence is easier to hold & retain if your group is the only “outsider”.
  3. Political unification. Iron age Israel was theocratic. The priests and kings shared (and sometimes competed for) power. A common origin story is a powerful tool for unification and shared identity. Similarly, the demonization on lowland city states (cultural & ethic siblings) as “Canaanite” served to support campaigns against them.

How did they accomplish this? By the production and dissemination of an origin story.  

While we are investigating the historicity of the Biblical narrative, we should also consider: why do these texts exist at all? The Hebrew Bible is humanity’s first attempt at prose, and of history. This intermingling of religion and history was unique to the ancient world. Instead of cyclic episodes of mythological combat, the Israelite religious imagination was fixated on events of their material past. Its structure is entirely unique, and cries out for an explanation. The Bible was written to create a written tradition (much more stable than oral traditions) of national identity.

In addition to violence, the Levites also had a reputation for teaching. We can see this in verses like Deuteronomy 6:20-23, which reads,

When your children ask you later on, “What are these laws that Yahweh commanded you?” you must say to them, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt in a powerful way. And he brought signs and great, devastating wonders on Egypt, on Pharaoh, and on his whole family before our very eyes. He delivered us from there so that he could give us the land he had promised our ancestors.

What specifically did the Levites fabricate?

They started with their own experience (an actual event), and added the following:

First, to make a mini-exodus massive, you need large numbers. You can actually “watch” the estimates grow as we move from earlier to later sources. J doesn’t mention numbers at all. E estimates a total of around 600,000, and P estimates of total of 600,000 fighting-age males (for a total of two million).

Second, the Exodus, without the conquest, would never have survived as a story. You need to explain how a nomadic nation came to reside in someone else’s territory. The conquest does this (and also stokes political sentiment of a later time period).

Why did the Israelites believe this story?

Don’t we all evaluate our personal origin stories with a bit too much credulity? Many Romans literally believed a wolf raised their patriarchs. Even in American culture, many people I’ve spoken with conceive of the Founding Fathers in mythic, rather than human, terms.

But why didn’t the first recipients of the mass exodus story reject it? Imagine the Levites waited ten or twenty generations before telling the story, and the mini-exodus narrative expansion happened only gradually. Israelites would only have distant inklings of the remembered past to go on. It is true that, for the exodus story to take root in early Israel it was necessary for it to pertain to the remembered past of settlers who did not emigrate from Egypt. And this is in fact the case. Egypt did control and oppress Canaan, during the mini-Exodus.

Takeaways

Today we learned that Yahweh was originally a god of metallurgy in northwest Saudi Arabia. The Levites brought worship of him to Israel.

More specifically:

  • Certain aspects of Israelite prehistory as given by the Bible cannot be read literally. We have strong evidence that he Israelite people we indigenous Canaanites. The Israelites and the Canaanites shared the same religion: the pantheon of El. The earliest Israelites worshipped creator god El, his wife Asherah, and his sons e.g., Baal.
  • The original Yahweh cult was located in south Edom (northwest Saudi Arabia). Yahweh was there worshipped by the Shasu people as a god of metallurgy
  • There was no mass exodus. But there was a mini-exodus of a group of Levite priests from Egypt. The Biblical evidence suggests that Moses was a Midianite, and his encounter with Yahweh occurred in Midian.
  • On arrival at Israel, the Levites were incorporated into the Israeli population. Instead of land, they were ceded priestly roles, which included a 10% tithe. Their deity Yahweh was introduced as a second tier god: a member of El’s family. The national history created by the Levites thus helped unify Israel around her new pre-history.

Until next time.

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