Part Of: History sequence
Content Summary: 2200 words, 11 min read.
Where, and how, was the god of Judaism first worshiped?
Yahweh was originally a god of metallurgy in northwest Saudi Arabia.
Rethinking the Israelite origin story
First, a mass exodus of two million people (six hundred thousand fighting-age men) is vanishingly unlikely. If it was historical, we would expect:
- physical debris from the pilgrimage, at any of the thirty locations they are said to have stopped.
- archaeological evidence of a dramatic demographic shift in the highlands of Israel.
- inclusion in the (otherwise quite voluminous) records of the Egyptian border guards
- Egyptian texts discussing the new political situation (since the Egyptians had control over, and military outposts throughout Canaan)
How much of the above evidence do we have? Zero! Recall that absence of evidence can (and in this case does) mean evidence of absence. The very first piece of evidence aligns with 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.
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. There is substantial evidence for this hypothesis
- 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?
The first Israelites worshiped the pantheon of El
In Egyptian mythology, the most powerful god was Ra. In Babylon, it was Marduk. In Greece, it was Chronus.
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.
The original Yahweh cult was a Shasu religion located in southern Edom
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 worshiped 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”.
Yahweh was first worshiped as a god of metallurgy
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:
- The Edomites, and especially the Kenites, were known as the Canaanite smelters. It is only natural for their god to reflect their craft.
- The Israelite cult of Yahweh was associated with copper and with a bronze serpent, a typical symbol of metallurgy. The Bible also alludes to Israel as two mountains of copper, and Yahweh inspiring blacksmiths, and even explicitly describes Yahweh as a blacksmith.
- The Bible alludes to a special intimacy between Cain the metallurgist and Yahweh. It is at the time of Enosh (ancestor of the blacksmiths) that people are said to begin to worship Yahweh. The test of adultery in the Sotah prescription derives from a Kenite ritual of abortion-induction by copper poisoning.
- Evidence of metallurgic cultic activities have been found in the Timma sanctuary in southern Judah.
- The Egyptians tell us that the Kenites had a sign on their forehead. The Bible associates this sign with the protection of Yahweh. This sign remained a symbol of Yahwism into the late monarchy.
- Yahweh’s oracle for the distant nation of Elam, is surprisingly intimate; their citizens are treated as a people of Yahweh. This may be due to homology (or identity) of Yahweh with their god Napir, a god of metallurgy.
- The etymological root of the word “Yahweh” probably means “He who blows”. This could speak either to his origins as a storm god, or a blacksmith god.
- There are striking parallels between metallurgy gods in the Ancient Near East. Mesopatamian Enki, Egyptian Ptah, Elamite Ea, and even Greek Dionysus. These gods were generally formless, and didn’t leave many physical artifacts as other gods. This could explain why Yahweh worship was so aniconic.
For more information, I recommend Amzallag, 2009. Yahweh, the Canaanite God of Metallurgy?
The founder of Judaism, Moses, was said to be 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.
One does not need to take a position on the historicity of Moses, or of a mini-Exodus, to consider the above evidence. Even if he was entirely fictional, the fact that Israelite priests portrayed Moses as a Midianite is significant.
Yahweh was introduced to Israel as a second tier deity (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.
We have seen how Yahweh was first worshiped in Midian, and not Israel. Concurrently, El was worshiped in the land of Israel.
Then, when Yahwism emigrated to Israel (incorporation), Yahweh was not recognized as a god of gods. Rather, Yahweh was elevated to this position (equated with El) as the nation of Judah transitioned towards statehood.
As we will see next, worship of Yahweh emerged gradually, in five stages:
Here’s what we covered today:
- The Israelite origin story is largely a patriotic fiction.
- The Israelite people were indigenous Canaanites.
- The first Israelites worshiped the pantheon of El.
- The original Yahweh cult was a Shasu religion located in southern Edom
- Yahweh was first worshiped as a god of metallurgy
- The founder of Judaism, Moses, was said to be a Midianite
- Yahweh was introduced to Israel as a second tier deity (a member of El’s family)
Until next time.